Love & Quantum Mechanics

I am a theoretical particle physicist. The reasons I love physics are pretty much all the standard ones—just your typical stuff about wanting to understand the fundamental structure of nature, having a deep and abiding love of math, and probably, somewhere deep down, wanting to find evidence of a clean and orderly structure behind all the chaos we see every day. But if I’m really being honest with myself, there’s one major reason I ended up where I am today: It was because of a girl.

The girl in question was (is) named Binney. She and I had basically nothing in common, except that we were both math majors. Binney was tall and blond, and rowed on the crew team, while I was a pudgy, long-haired math enthusiast whose idea of a good time was carrying around a tiny ceramic pig on a stick, using it to provoke my closest friends into a rage by repeatedly poking them with it until it was forcibly taken from me.

The fact that we started dating came as a surprise to both of us.

The fact that we started dating came as a surprise to both of us, since by Binney’s own confession, she “couldn’t say exactly why she was attracted to [me].” And what came as even more of a surprise was that even though we had only begun to see each other in February of our senior year, by the time graduation was staring us in the face, things were getting serious, and we had wildly different plans for the coming year: Binney was going to grad school for economics at UC San Diego, but I was heading off to Duke to pursue a PhD in music composition. In addition to my math major, I had also been a music major, focusing mostly on jazz composition and performance, and decided that I would take my chances at a career in music.

I had no particular plans for the summer, except to stay with my parents in suburban New Jersey and hang out with nearby college friends as much as possible, since all of us were desperate to get in some more time together before our lives began to go off in different directions. But Binney had accepted a job teaching summer school at an elite boarding school in New England. So I decided to spend pretty much every weekend with her, taking the five-hour drive up on Fridays and then back on Mondays, using the car time to work my way through the entire Frank Zappa catalog chronologically by album release date.

I had a choice to make: Music or Binney.

By the middle of the summer, I was up to Hot Rats (my love of which would foreshadow my deep connection to all the albums from the astonishing ’88 live tour), and more into Binney than ever. Although Binney was far from my first girlfriend, a fact which remains astonishing to me even now, I felt like ours was the first “adult” relationship I had ever had. Something about it felt more serious, probably since the end of college forced us to consider it in the light of the outside world. I thought she was remarkable—beautiful, intelligent, witty, and also a bit tough, which I mean as a compliment. She was no bullshit, and I loved it. Basically, I was smitten with her. I knew that if she went to California and I went to North Carolina, our relationship was over. I know this because she told me so. Binney did not tend to mince words. So now I had a choice to make: Music or Binney.

Needless to say, this was a tough choice. But since I had ten hours of alone time every weekend in the car, I had a LOT of time to think about it. And gradually I realized that I had another option. See, I had entered college intending to be a physics major. During the course of my freshman year, I got diverted into the math department, since Williams has a particularly outstanding math faculty, and I intellectually liked the idea of doing something where problems could be solved exactly, and not approximated. I now know this point of view to be hopelessly naïve. Exact solutions are the domain of the young, the brilliant, or the unproductive.

Here was everything that I had been waiting for in physics—the math was more interesting, the concepts were cool, and the subject still had research questions that you could work on!

So although I took several physics classes, it wasn’t until my senior year that I finally got around to quantum mechanics. And I fell in love with it. Here was everything that I had been waiting for in physics—the math was more interesting, the concepts were cool, and the subject still had research questions that you could work on! When you start taking physics, the problems are all about blocks sliding down ramps, or point charges moving through idealized electric fields. And although it’s fun to solve these problems at first, it very rapidly becomes tedious. (Side note: For many great examples of the lengths to which you have to go to make a classical mechanics problem interesting, look at the famous Cambridge Tripos exams from the late nineteenth century, when all of Newtonian physics was known but quantum stuff hadn’t yet been discovered. The problems are things like an oblate ellipsoid dropped into a spherical cavity resting on a series of springs connected, and they’re horrible.)

But quantum mechanics was cool! It was fun! It was hip! (Not really, but it was fun and cool.) I liked the first semester so much that during my final semester of college, when you’re supposed to be slacking off, I took an intense one-on-one tutorial on advanced topics in quantum. While my friends were out enjoying the completion of their thesis projects, I was at the math library doing problem sets. During breaks, I’d go see Binney. I couldn’t get enough.

So I realized that there was, in fact, a way for us to be together. All I needed to do was physics.

See, UC San Diego had a good physics department. Not top ten, but still pretty good, and even great in some research areas. So to be with Binney, all I would need to do is the following:

  • Drop out of music grad school. Well, not drop out, but not show up.
  • Learn enough physics to take the physics GRE, which is notable for its difficulty. Since I only had three-fifths of a physics degree, this would be a challenge.
  • Apply to physics grad school at UC San Diego.
  • Get in to physics grad school at UC San Diego.
  • In the meantime, find something else to do for the coming year.

Obviously, this was FAR easier said than done. But what was the worst, even more difficult than any of this stuff, was the amount of self-deception I had to engage in to convince myself that what I was doing was actually best for me, and not just some harebrained scheme I was hatching so I could be with my girlfriend.

So I told my family, my friends, and myself that I had changed my mind about going to grad school for music. Music was a hard career, I said. I had planned on being a composer, and do you know how difficult that is? Even if you write something you’re happy with, the odds of getting it performed are small, and the only people likely to hear it are your composer friends. Besides, the only place a composer could really work was in academics, and those jobs are impossible to come by. Doesn’t it make more sense to get a PhD in physics, where I could maybe use my degree for something else if academics didn’t work out? Doesn’t it make more sense for me to do something that has at least some chance of succeeding? Doesn’t it?

It was completely obvious to all of my friends why I wanted to move to San Diego, and they told me so.

The answer, as nearly everyone told me, is that it doesn’t. It was completely obvious to all of my friends why I wanted to move to San Diego, and they told me so. But I was convinced this was the right path, and no amount of “what the hell are you doings?” were going to change my mind. And one day in late July of 1997, I called Duke and told them I wasn’t coming. I had decided to take my chance with physics, and with Binney.

The next year passed slowly, since the only job I could get in the interim was teaching math at a boarding school in New England, one considerably less elite than the one Binney had been teaching at over the summer. We were apart for the year, but frequent visits to San Diego combined with the possible light at the end of the tunnel made it bearable. And when I finally got in to UC San Diego (despite bombing the physics GREs), I knew everything would be okay.

I moved to San Diego in June of 1998, as soon as my teaching obligations ended. Ten months later, Binney and I broke up. I could go into the reasons, but honestly there’s not much to tell. I guess I could say that we just grew apart, but what actually happened is that while I stayed in place, Binney was growing apart from me. When we finally split, I didn’t see it coming. I was devastated.

But at that point, I was in the middle of physics grad school, and honestly, I loved it. I had to work my ass off to catch up to my classmates, all of whom had been physics majors. I felt completely betrayed by this woman for whom I’d moved across the country. But grad school, especially the first year of it, doesn’t really give you time to deal with some things, and so I found myself completely wrapped up in my work.

I did consider quitting and finding something else to do. But at that point, the only good thing in my life was physics.

Since I wasn’t even a year in, I did consider quitting and finding something else to do. But at that point, the only good thing in my life was physics. So I stayed. I stayed through that first year, spent the entire summer furiously studying for the qualifying exam, and then passed it the following fall. By that point I was even involved in a research program, since I had started working with a guy who did theoretical plasma physics. It was cool, interesting stuff, but it had one major flaw—it was entirely “classical,” which is physics jargon for “doesn’t involve quantum mechanics.”

My second year of grad school was a time of personal and academic crisis. Coming from the suburbs of northern New Jersey, I found San Diego difficult to grok. Everyone was blond and a little too friendly, and because of the sheer urban sprawl, it was hard to find cool stuff. Everything was beach culture, which I’m still extremely not into. And of course dating was a total impossibility as well. I found out at some point during this year that when I thought I was being funny and sarcastic, some people I met thought I was just being a dick. (Given my recent breakup and dour point of view at that point, it’s possible they were right.)

But during that second year, I took a class on string theory. And in this class, I saw all the stuff that I loved about physics. The math (ten dimensions!) was interesting and geometrical. The whole language of string theory used quantum mechanics in a beautiful, intimate way. And there had been a recent explosion of amazing results, many of which were being reported in the media. I couldn’t wait to learn more.

So now I had to break up with my advisor. He was a witheringly sarcastic curmudgeon (which is part of why I’d wanted to work with him, having sensed a kindred spirit), so I was expecting the worst. But he understood. He understood that I needed to do whatever I was interested in, and studying anything else would be ridiculous.

Luckily, the academic “dating” world was a lot easier for me to navigate than the real one. I found an advisor quickly, and he turned out to be a great guy who treated me right. And four years later, I graduated, with even a high-profile paper under my belt.

A PhD isn’t a means to an end, it’s an end in itself.

One of my mentors in college told me that a PhD isn’t a means to an end, it’s an end in itself. In other words, if you go to grad school expecting to be a professor, you’ll probably be disappointed. You should go because you’re genuinely interested in your subject, and then whatever happens, happens.

I’ve been lucky enough to not only graduate, but also to have moved my way up the academic ladder. This coming fall, eight years after I graduated from UC San Diego, I’ll start my first job as a professor of theoretical high energy physics. And although I have a lot of people to thank for this, there’s no doubt in my mind that more than anyone else, Binney is to blame.

I haven’t seen Binney since I left San Diego (we occasionally ran into each other there, no matter how much I would try not to). I suppose I could reach out to tell her all this, but I’m not sure I want to. What’s the point? But if I had to get in touch with her today, there’s one thing I’d say:

I’m still angry about the whole breakup thing. But also, thanks.

Brian Wecht is a theoretical particle physicist and string theorist, and a founder and producer of The Story Collider. This fall he will be taking The Story Collider international in London.

Art by Lena H. Chandhok.