Wednesday, June 15, 2005

leptons and mesons and quarks, oh my!

This post started life about a month ago when I was feeling happy about work and wanted to write something about what got me to where I am now. I put it aside to be finished when I had more time, but never managed to come back to it in the right upbeat mood. I decided I was unlikely to be able to finish it cheerfully, so here it is, Eeyore-style.

My ambition, aged 13, was to become a particle physicist. This was probably my first serious plan for what to do when I grew up. Earlier ambitions included being a nurse (I think most girls go through that stage) and being an author (abandoned when I decided my writing most closely resembled Enid Blyton and she was a bit rubbish). But there something about the weird quantum world that caught my imagination and the idea of being able to investigate it appealed.

The desire to do something with physics lasted into my A-levels, apart from a brief period where I wanted to do medicine (until I decided it was too hard). And so, I ended up at university signed up for a Physics degree, a four year MPhys. This was where it all unravelled. For a start the maths got really REALLY hard. I'd always found maths easy at school, I didn't seem to have to work at it, it was just obvious. But somehow degree-level maths wasn't as instinctive and I struggled. The physics course seemed to be composed mostly of boring bits, electromagnetism, thermodynamics, not too much of the cool stuff that had got me hooked. And as for practicals. Aaaargh! First year practicals meant spending every Friday underground for eight hours screaming at oscilloscopes or trying to get my programs to run properly. Doing stats was a nightmare, no-one told us how to write stuff up properly and the whole experience put me off practicals for life.

There were good bits too. The second year particle physics lectures for one. I remember one that left me bouncing all day about just how amazing the process from the Big Bang to the formation of galaxies is. All the numbers were just right. The occasional above-ground practical that went well and one that got us extra credit. But it was hard work and I narrowly scraped through Part A finals. At this point I still wanted to continue on and do the 4th year, but my tutor was adamant that my marks weren't good enough and I would have to switch to a BSc, meaning I was suddenly faced with only one more term before I was out in the big bad world, rather than the four I'd anticipated.

Strangely enough, that last term was the best. I'd done most of my finals and had only one short exam to do and an essay to write. I chose a course on cosmology and my project tutor came up with an essay on CP violation. These took me back to the things I'd loved about physics in the first place - the amazing big stuff; stars; galaxies; pulsars and the weird little stuff; quarks and their strange behaviour. The essay - my first lengthy piece of writing since A-levels - helped me realise it was the ideas of physics and their impact on the world that I really loved. I wasn't cut out for a life in research, being terrible at both the practical and theoretical sides, but I could do something with words and communication.

So I did a Masters in science communication, which I loved. It was full of philosophy and media studies and lots of the sort of social science stuff that annoys hard scientists and while I didn't agree with all of it, I enjoyed getting my brain stretched in new ways. Since then, I've stepped sideways a bit into cross-disciplinary stuff, with a (very) brief foray into event management and now in my current job, I'm sort of back where I started, in a physics department, surrounded by particle physicists. And sometimes it's great. The guys I work with are, on the whole a lovely bunch and very willing to explain the physics of what they do.

But sometimes, like today, it's dreadful. I don't feel at all suited to what I'm doing and I'm lonely. I miss having an office full of people to bounce ideas off. I miss having colleagues my own age. I miss non-geekery. I miss having female colleagues to talk to. I don't know whether to stick this out or start looking for something else. Realistically I'm committed to stuff until about November, so it would be inconvenient to leave before that. So I'll stay until then. But I'll keep my CV updated.

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