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MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

My advisor won $3 million by Anna H. '14

Unraveling the mysteries of the universe, and helping Anna make life choices

The media has been buzzing about the Fundamental Physics Prize: nine physicists worldwide just won $3 million each for outstanding contributions to our understanding of the universe. 

One of those winners is an MIT professor, and the inventor of The Inflationary Theory Of Cosmology, which is a fancy title for A More Complete Version Of Big Bang Theory. Classic Big Bang theory, this professor likes to say, “says nothing about what banged, what happened before it banged, or what caused it to bang”; inflation provides an explanation.

His Wikipedia article says that he has, “in the past”, studied “lattice gauge theory, magnetic monopoles and instantons, Gott time machines…extrapolating density fluctuations arising from various versions of inflation, to test against observations, and investigating inflation in “brane world” models.” His MIT faculty page says that his research “has centered on the application of theoretical particle physics to the early universe: what can particle physics tell us about the history of the universe, and what can cosmology tell us about the fundamental laws of nature?”

What you won’t find out from these websites, though, is that he designed and teaches an undergraduate class on the Early Universe, will be teaching 8.07 (Electromagnetism II) this fall – and has been my advisor for about a year.

He told me to call him Alan.

During our first meeting, he helped me pick which classes to register for. We wrote down a list of all the classes I was considering, worked out pros and cons, and played the process of elimination game. The whole time, I was distracted by the thought that he might find this boring or inane. I figured that he’d probably rather be writing a list of “Leading Theories About How The Universe Works”, and working out pros and cons using hardcore physics magic. He seemed genuinely invested in my interests, though, and when I expressed an interest in astronomy towards the end of the meeting, he gave me a list of professors to get in touch with. One of them was Professor Dumbledore; I will say no more about that, and instead direct you here. Suffice it to say that Professor Dumbledore is the reason why I am doing astronomy research this summer.

That semester, I took Alan’s Early Universe class. I missed a lecture because I was sick, so read the lecture notes and asked if I could meet with him to go over the parts I found confusing. To be honest, I also secretly wanted to find more excuses to hang out with him. Either way, we made an appointment, and at some point during the meeting ended up following a tangent to the world of cosmic strings and time loops. Eventually, he suggested that we meet again the next week for a more complete discussion on the topic, so that we could actually get to all my questions. There’s now an e-mail thread in my inbox called “Discussing Cosmic Strings”; Alan ended up giving a special out-of-class talk on cosmic strings to anyone from our class who was interested and available to attend.

A couple of times, we found ourselves walking in the same direction after lecture, and I ended up telling him all about my experience teaching on the Navajo reservation. It was refreshing to talk to him about something completely unrelated to physics.

This spring, I applied to a bunch of summer programs, and it made perfect sense to ask Alan for a letter of recommendation: he was both my advisor and my professor. I was worried, though, that he’d be too busy, and that my rec wouldn’t make it onto his priority list; I pictured a template with my name in the blanks. Instead, we met in person to discuss my interests and objectives in more detail, and he asked me to send him my application essays. I guess I can’t confirm that he actually used any of that information, but now I’m doing an REU with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, so…it couldn’t have been that bad.

It’s true that with Great Physics Power comes Great Time Commitments; I can’t waltz into my advisor’s office and expect to find him there, which is kind of a bummer. That said, I haven’t had any trouble making an appointment with him.

Here’s my point: when I found out that Alan Guth was going to be my advisor, my first thought was “WOAH THAT’S AWESOME!” and my second thought was “ugh, great – famous person for an advisor. I’m not going to get any attention at all.” This seems like as good a time as any to stress that this physicist extraordinaire still finds time to be a down-to-earth, supportive advisor to a little undergrad who doesn’t even know what classes to take next fall, let alone how to investigate inflation in brane world models. I think that that’s something for every scientist to aspire to: as much as, if not more, than winning a $3 million prize.