Wednesday, December 2, 2015

In the beginning

My mind was void, and without form. Or at least, that must have been the impression I made on Dr. K., the department head for my local university’s Physics PhD program. I had heard that he was a difficult person to get along with, but I hadn't actually talked to him at any moment during my Master's degree a couple of years ago. Indeed, back then I was actually advised not to take his Quantum Mechanics course, on the grounds that I would suffer greatly and learn nothing because of his disdain for engineers and astronomers. So at that time I decided to wait a semester and take the class with another professor, Dr. G. That was perhaps the best decision I made during my two-year Master's program, second only to the election of my Master's thesis director, Dr. R.

But now I was stuck having to confront Dr. K., having finally made up my mind that I would attempt to get into the PhD program. Since finishing my Master's more than a year earlier, I had my sights set on making up for my weaknesses by studying relentlessly before even trying to enter the PhD program, in order that I could work on what really interested me, which was General Relativity. Another professor, Dr. N., had already pretty much accepted me as his pupil, despite my best efforts to prove my incompetence to him (more on this later). But now I had to take the formal step of approaching Dr. K. and officially declaring my intention to enter the PhD candidate pool to him.

“So what did you work on for your Master's?” he asked. His Russian accent was noticeable, but much more subtle than Dr. N.’s.

“Astronomy, with Dr. R.”, I said.

He immediately responded, “Yes, but what actual physics did you work on?”

I wasn't expecting this. You see, astronomy is a branch of physics, and I had worked on spectroscopy. That seemed like physics to me, and so I told him.

“Spectroscopy? Well, then. Tell me about the physics of spectroscopy.”

I rambled and stuttered through the principles at work, mostly butchering the explanation of atomic energy levels, emission of photons in the mid-infrared portion of the spectrum, how they corresponded mostly to molecular hydrogen, how they were then captured by the spectrograph on a space telescope, and how I used a Boltzmann distribution to deduce the energy and therefore the temperature of the hydrogen. . . I trailed off, and his expression somewhat begrudgingly acknowledged there was some physics in what I was trying to say.

“So what do you know about Relativity? Have you worked on it before?”

I mumbled something, but before I could go on he interrupted and asked, “Do you know what a Killing vector is?”

I was blank. “Uh, no,” I said.

“And what is the Schwarzschild metric?”

I knew that one, but couldn't find the words quickly enough. There was an interruption. A student entered the office and discussed some result or calculation with Dr. K. for a few minutes. After he left, he returned to me:

“Look, this is my off-the cuff impression. I'm not judging you, and I don't know you, but what you want to do is very risky. Relativity is really difficult. If you haven't worked with it before, you're not going to get to a high level and produce meaningful results in 3 years. You're setting yourself up for failure,” he said, “You're an engineer, right?”

Dr. N. must have told him something about me, but I had no idea how much had been said. I confirmed I had a degree in chemical engineering, from many years ago. Then I explained—–attempted to explain–—that I had already made my best effort to tell Dr. N. that I didn't feel ready, but that he insisted that I sign up for the entrance exam and interview anyway. I also said Dr. N. had given me some papers to read, and had basically accepted me as his student already, even though the exact topic of my research wasn't yet defined specifically. I mentioned I had good programming skills, and that I could study and learn on my own. He shook his head slightly at this, somewhat dismissively.

“The work Dr. N. does is very advanced mathematically. I don't think you're ready if you come from astronomy. He's been my friend for many years, but we haven't spoken about your case in detail. Are you sure he said he's accepted you?”

I nodded. We got into a brief conversation about how I got to Dr. N. in the first place, how I was interested in Relativity but open to working on something else, and how Dr. N. had advised me to work on what I really wanted rather than what would be easiest or more realistic. I described how I had gone through all the points on the entrance exam study guide one by one with Dr. N., and how I had failed miserably, but Dr. N. told me not to worry about it and just make sure I understood the basic principles at work—–I had about a month to study up. He had said that the panel of professors took many factors into account during the examination, and being a robot that remembered all the equations wasn’t going to win me many points if I didn’t have certain other traits that they looked for in a candidate. Dr. K. seemed very conflicted at this point, keeping his gaze down, and it was mostly me who did the talking. He mentioned the possibility of looking up another astronomy professor and working on a PhD with him instead.

“Look, I encourage you to take the exam. I really do. But you must reconsider your field of study. On the day of the exam, you must have your decision made. Really, take the exam,” he said, “But reconsider. If Dr. N. has already agreed to work with you, I won't get in the way. But honestly I think it would be a dangerous mistake.”

So that's what went around my head at that moment and the rest of the day (and night). Not the excitement of finally reaching a milestone I aimed at since childhood, nor even the stuff that I was supposed to study up on over the next month, but rather the idea that all along I'd been setting myself up for failure by making mistake after mistake after mistake, only to plow along anyway and potentially be miserable for the next three years, if I even made it that far.

*   *  *
The previous scene took place over a month ago.  I was very bothered by it, but it only lasted a couple of days.  Slowly, the feeling that I could succeed became stronger and I didn't need to consider it any further.  On the day of the exam, this past Monday, I reaffirmed my intention to work with Dr. N. on GR as originally planned.  Dr. K. was still somewhat worried, but he managed to make a comment along the lines of "Well, I think we've had successful students who came from engineering before," which is as much of an encouragement as one could reasonably expect from him. At the time of this post, I am roughly a month away from the formal beginning of my studies. In case you were wondering, I'll be working on a description of spacetime by means of dynamical triangulation.  Don't ask me for any details on that just yet, though.

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