Jul 15, 2016
This is where my decisions have taken me
“Einen Faden in die Hand nehmen, der in jedem Fall, unter allen Umständen weiterläuft, an dem man sich, wenn es not tut, halten kann…”
“To take in one’s hand a thread which continues always and through all circumstances, to which one can hold tight, when necessary…”
- from Nachdenken über Christa T. (The Quest for Christa T.) by Christa Wolf
* * *
I used to think of decision-making as a complicated optimization problem. There was some quantity I wanted to maximize (say, my happiness, or the good I could do for the world) and would maximize, if I could only be prescient enough to solve for the best combination of choices. Once solved for, I could plan my future by laying these decisions out in front of me; once in place, I could follow them where I wanted to go.
So there I was one afternoon at MIT, talking to Dumbledore in his office, outlining the pros and cons of some decision. I guess my anxiety gave away my obsession with getting it all exactly right. "Anna," Dumbledore said, "Let me tell you a story." One day, as a young man, he got in an elevator. Another person got in the elevator. It was a slow elevator, I suppose, so they had time to talk. That person became a mentor to him, encouraged him to go to graduate school, and the rest is history.
That anecdote probably got over-simplified while making a home for itself in my memory. But I think that the moral was this: you can try to micromanage your future, but ultimately you can’t predict or control what will happen to you. Your decisions set the initial conditions, and chance encounters will deflect you. You should work hard so that you’re prepared to take advantage of what comes (like a chatty stranger in an elevator) but that’s fundamentally different from, say, choosing the “right” major or the “right” career. I think that sometimes we reconstruct our paths in our memories so that it all flows logically, but I suspect that there’s more chance and arbitrariness than we’d like to admit. Could I have majored in something else and been just as happy? Probably. Could I have a different job right now and feel just as “right”? Almost certainly. Is that something to agonize over? No. At some point, there’s too much scatter between a set of options for you to be able to predict which one is “best.” You narrow things down to a reasonable set, then pick one and run with it.
I picked grad school in astronomy. As a result, the contents of the binders on my bookshelf have narrowed in scope. They used to contain arrow pushing diagrams from organic chemistry, notes on plays by Tom Stoppard, and equations describing every conceivable combination of springs and swinging pendulums. Now, it’s all space physics: notes on the fate of stars, on how galaxies form and evolve, on runaway thermonuclear reactions, on the thermal history of the universe.
This would horrify undergrad Anna, who was afraid of specialization, the consequence of making decisions. But it feels good to specialize. As a grad student, I'm responsible for every detail of a project. I own it, even if goodness knows it wasn’t my idea. When my colleagues grill me on my research, it's satisfying because I know the details. I did the details, I am the expert. It’s a kind of high, being so deeply engrossed in a topic. And I get to take this depth with me when I discuss science with the public. Last weekend, I gave a talk for the Santa Monica Amateur Astronomy Society, and the audience asked me questions I couldn't have answered a year or even a few months ago. I answered, and then I answered the follow-up questions, and was surprised to find that I could go deeper and deeper. I’ve found fulfilment in expertise and joy in obsession.
Another reward of specialization is the community, united by the kinds of problems you think about or the approaches you take, and even a shared language. When I arrived in Germany (I spent a year there on a Fulbright, after I graduated) I remember thinking to myself that I had to learn two foreign languages: outside work I was surrounded by German, and at work I was surrounded by stellar spectroscopy and galaxy evolution. I had no idea what anyone was talking about, anywhere, anytime. I slowly picked up both languages, and now I find it oddly comforting to hear German, the same way I find it oddly comforting to hear particular astro-lingo.
There is a danger in this: you might forget how to speak other languages. It’s eerie to ask someone what they work on and get a response that is technically correct English yet totally incomprehensible. It’s in your interest to be able to effectively translate what you do, to your colleagues and to the source of your funding. And it’s your responsibility to effectively translate what you do to the public, to do what you can to improve science literacy. Earlier this summer, I went to a workshop where the goal was to train graduate students how to effectively communicate their science with the public -- part of this was reminding ourselves what language we used to speak, before we arrived at our respective specialties.
Another danger of specialization is to one’s self esteem. I’m only a year into grad school, but my impression is that an all-consuming occupation like research can sneak its way into becoming the sole way you judge yourself. Research progresses slowly, so the timescales on which you are rewarded are long, and in between you can feel aimless and frustrated.
So, it's important to pursue hobbies and interests that routinely make you feel happy, on a timescale much shorter than the timescale on which research rewards you. I identified what those pursuits are for me while I was at MIT: engaging with the public about what I do by giving talks, teaching, volunteering. It’s not that “hard” in the sense that over time I’ve built up a set of materials that I can use over and over again, and I’m not scared of questions because I either know the answer or know how to find it. And it’s always immediately rewarding, and sometimes even deeply rewarding on longer timescales, when I stay in touch with old students and watch them grow.
It is harder to pursue other interests now that I’m no longer an undergrad, where anytime I left my room I was bombarded with more interesting things than I could handle (and the interesting things even sneaked their way into my room, via a zillion mailing lists). But I’ve taken strands from MIT in hand, and pulled them with me to grad school. My senior year, I was bummed when the Paradise Lost seminar didn’t fit my schedule, and Prof. Arthur Bahr generously offered to read it with me. After I graduated, Arthur offered to put me in touch with a medievalist at Caltech “whenever you feel like your feet are planted enough to resume thinking about medieval literature.” Now, I have a reading group with this professor and two of my friends (including Becky ’12, another former student of medieval literature at MIT!) We’re making our way through Pearl, a beautiful haunting poem from the 14th century about coming to terms with love and loss. The reason I suggested Pearl is that Arthur wrote an essay (and is maybe even writing a book?) on it. I’m excited to finish the poem, read Arthur’s essay, then write him a note to let him know that Becky and I caught the Medieval Literature bug from him, big time.
These other activities give me the chance to climb out of my specialist hole, dust myself off, have a look around, and remind myself what else is out there to be enjoyed and learned. That's what I'm doing right now, writing this at a cafe near Caltech. I’m just starting a new research project, and it’s frustrating to be a beginner again; I felt like I had a handle on my old project, and it’s tempting to hide in that old project forever. But I know that it’s good for me to do something new. And it’s an exciting problem (gravitational waves and merging black holes and radio interferometry, anyone?) but UGH, I've been banging my head against the wall for the past couple of weeks. So, thanks for the excuse to take a break and blog, Chris. This afternoon, I’ll dive right back in again.