The Joy of Pulling things Apart

A clothes dryer heating element, 10 years old and broken

Before I wanted to be a physicist – I mean, really wanted to become a physicist – I learned the joy of tinkering. I am sure it started earlier than when I remember it actually happening (memory is funny that way), the first first recollection I have of fully losing my fear of pulling the universe apart, and putting it back together, was in the basement shop of my grandfather… shortly after he passed away.

Every generation of scientist makes the same observation; it’s so common, it’s trite. “Kids these days,” the observation usually starts, “they lack the courage to get their hands dirty.” I have heard this my whole life, even as I grew up in this field. The truth is, any one of us who got this far – who lost all our fear for dismantling the universe and putting it back together – probably had a mentor along the way.

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Messages from Blois (2019)

The Chateau de Blois sits atop one of hills of the city of Blois. Here it is viewed across the Loire River. Photo by Stephen Sekula.

The conference, Rencontres de Blois, takes place annually in the Chateau de Blois. This year was the 30th anniversary of the conference and the 31st such edition of the conference. The conference is a synthesis of particle physics, astrophysics, and cosmology – a perfect match to the strengths of our own physics department at SMU. As is typical, I always learn something new at the conference. Here, I share a few of my personal favorite highlights.

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Failure as a Teacher’s Aid

Any person with a minimum sufficient experience in life has been rewarded with failure. A subset of those people, with sufficient practice, will come to recognize failure, not as a friend, but as a teacher. A recent useful (and ultimately harmless) failure in my class became a key teaching moment, and may serve as a template to others to how to incorporate failure into teaching without disrupting the larger arc of a class

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Who does the “A” physics?

By my own recollection, it was the spring of my second year in college. I was a sophomore who had stumbled in my physics and math classes at Yale. I had tasted what it was to no longer be the best student in your classes, and it was hard to accept. It would be years before I finally found my footing in physics classes. The path to my recovery, however, began that spring.

Me, circa the time I went to or was in college. Photo is undated. Nerd.

I had sent a bunch of emails to professors in the Yale physics department inquiring about research opportunities. I don’t recall how many emails I sent. I don’t even remember who nudged me to try this strategy. I learned it from someone. Was it a friend? A fellow physics major? A faculty member? My residential college Dean? It’s been too long for me to remember. Ironically, I might have a printed copy of those emails somewhere; this was still in the days when emails were not frequent, nor a tool of advertisers and businesses, and one could actually print and save a paper copy of every email (which I did, for a while; I guarded them like hand-written letters).

I don’t recall how many responses I got to those inquiries. I don’t recall if there were emails declining to take me on as a researcher student. I only remember the professor for whom I ultimately went to work, and I only remember snippets of those first moments meeting him and learning about what I would do if I joined his group. His name was Michael Schmidt, and he was the first professor to take a risk on me and give me a chance to become a better physicist.

Michael was, to my recollection, a fairly young professor at the time. I would later learned he sang and played the guitar, that he had a family, and that he joked on airplanes that one had to say, after landing on the ground, “Well, we’ve once again cheated death.” I don’t know if that was something he always did, or did just for my benefit (I took my very first plane ride in the company of Michael a couple of years after starting my work in his group). It was memorable.

Michael responded to my email with an invitation to meet him and his group, and to tour their labs and see what they were doing. It was a casual interview of me, and me of them. Part of what makes a career in physics work is to find the right people to work with. Choosing the wrong research group can have years of consequences, and by my observations is a large contribution to what makes people quit the field (there are other factors, but this is certainly one of them). When you get invited to tour a group, pay close attention to the people. Do they seem professionally happy? That is, do they seem happy to be there? Especially watch the students – they are the proverbial canaries in the coalmine. If they are miserable, or seem professionally unhappy, then it’s likely the air of the group is poisoned. You are unlikely to escape the same fate. (Michael taught me this lesson)

So Michael brought me to Gibbs Laboratory, a “temporary” building (it had been up for many decades by the time I went to Yale) on the east side of Science Hill, and showed me around. He introduced me to a research scientist named Henry, an engineer named Thurston, and a graduate student (also) named Stephen.

One of the “Steves” who influenced the course of my life. This one was a graduate student in the Yale research group led by Michael Schmidt. He’ll factor into at least one later article on the bottom quark.

In one memorable moment from the trip, memorable mostly for how blindingly ignorant I was, Michael was walking me down the hall from the offices to the labs. He was trying to explain to me what it was his group did for physics research (although he would have me primarily working on electronics and hardware tasks). At one point, he said something like, “So, basically, what it is we do here is ‘B-Physics’.”

A bit of jargon handed to me by my future research superviser. I would not come to understand it until some time after my initial conversation with him.

I didn’t know what “B-Physics” was. It was jargon, and I couldn’t have known it referred to the study of matter made from bottom quarks, or “b-quarks”. Michael didn’t know there was a divide there between his knowledge and mine. For me, the only context in which I had ever heard such terminology used was in reference to movie quality, as in “This is a B-movie.” I recall thinking to myself, “Why would he tell me this? If he’s doing second-rate physics, why would be admit that?”

At the time, I kept quiet and nodded. It was only later that I learned what it was Michael was talking about. Nonetheless, I started my work with his group that summer. I learned from Michael that my interests in electronics and computer programming had real uses in physics experiments. This was my entree into the actual world of physics. I began to find my confidence, and though my grades in my academic courses would continue to be middling for an aspiring physics major, I found my excitement and my interest again. I found a way that I could become a particle physicist, which was really all I wanted. Michael gave me a chance, and I took it.

This was my beginning as a “B-Physicist.” In an ongoing series of articles in this blog, I want to use vignettes like this, combined with what we have learned from decades of physics experiments, to begin to explore the world of the bottom quark. When was it discovered? Why was it important that it was found? What are its properties? What is its place in the cosmos? What hopes have been pinned on (and dashed by) this tiny subatomic building block of matter? Why is the bottom quark still teaching us about the cosmos, almost 42 years after its discovery? And, what has the bottom quark taught me about myself?

I’ll explore these ideas in future writings. I hope they will serve others, while at the same time serving me in helping to understand some of the choices I have made in my life, and the consequences of those choices.