Loneliness: Stories about finding friends

This week, we're presenting stories about finding friends. Science can be a lonely job -- but it can also connect us to others in ways we'd never imagine.

Part 1: Feeling isolated in her new job as a particle accelerator operator at Fermilab, Cindy Joe finds comfort in the friendship of her unconventional pet.

Check out the full video of our show at Fermilab>>

Cindy Joe is an engineering physicist working with several of Fermilab’s experiments studying neutrinos, tiny particles that might hold the answers to some of the universe’s biggest mysteries. A first-generation college student, she grew up dreaming big in the back of her family’s Chinese restaurant in a small town in Arkansas. While obtaining her bachelor’s degree in physics, she also became a licensed senior reactor operator at Reed College’s nuclear research reactor. She then moved to even bigger machines, working as a particle accelerator operator in Fermilab’s Main Control Room for seven years. Cindy is deeply passionate about science outreach, and has spoken to audiences from elementary school to members of Congress. A 2-time presenter at Fermilab’s Physics Slam and a contributor to PechaKucha Night Batavia, she currently lectures in Fermilab’s Saturday Morning Physics program for high school students.

Part 2: Patrick Honner starts to doubt his lifelong love of math when graduate school becomes a lonely experience.

Check out video from our show with Math for America>>

Patrick Honner is an award-winning mathematics teacher who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He has taught everything from introductory algebra to multivariable calculus, and currently teaches calculus, linear algebra, and mathematical computing at Brooklyn Technical High School, where he also serves as instructional coach. Patrick is in his fourth Math for America Master Teacher Fellowship; he is a New York State Master Teacher; a Sloan award winner; and a Rosenthal Prize honoree. And in 2013 he received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. Patrick writes about math and teaching for Quanta Magazine, the New York Times, and on his blog.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Cindy Joe

When I was just out of college, I had a pet snail.  This was when I was still living in Portland, Oregon.  I had bought a box of strawberries from a fruit stand in a hurry and I hadn’t noticed until I got home that there was a little hitchhiker inside.  So I decided to keep him.  I named him Professor Snailworthy. 

What I didn’t realize until I had one was how much personality snails have.  He had favorite foods.  He'd hide in his shell when his cage got too dirty.  (Very fastidious.)  He loved to sit in his water dish.  And eventually, he outgrew the strawberry box and a friend bought him a terrarium to live in. He would crawl up to the lid and sort of stick there by suction, hanging upside down like a bat. 

Well, needless to say, I absolutely doted on the little guy.  Whenever I'd go on trips, I would get him a snail sitter.  We would go on outings to the park.  We’d go by bus.  Sometimes I'd get kind of strange looks, but not that many, because it was Portland. 

So we’d get off the bus at the park and I would open the lid of his cage and let him out onto the grass, to sort of taste the grasses of freedom…feel the wind in his eyestalks.  At some point I would scoop him back in and we would go home. 

Well, Professor Snailworthy grew, and I think he thrived.  He grew from a size that I hadn’t noticed in a strawberry box to maybe three to four inches long from nose to tail, with a shell the size of a key lime.  Wow, right? 

And I came up with this whole imaginary backstory in which maybe he would just not stop growing.  He would just keep growing and growing and growing until one day he would get so big that he would break out of the backyard and go exploring.  And maybe people would think that he was a monster rampaging the city, and they would get scared…until I showed up.  And he would remember that I had loved and taken care of him and he would let me take him home. 

I even sort of drew little draft sketches for a comic.  Just remember that you heard it here first.  And Hollywood, I'll be waiting to hear from you about movie options. 

Well, during this time I moved from Portland to the Chicago suburbs.  Of course, Professor Snailworthy went with me.  I’m kind of a rule follower so I looked up the airlines’ policies on snail transport.  I don't know why, but I couldn’t find any. 

But I didn’t just want to stuff him in my suitcase and hope for the best. So I popped him in my water bottle, put plastic wrap over the top and poked little breathing holes.  I packed him in my backpack and we both boarded the plane to our new life.  I figured if anybody saw his silhouette on the x-ray and asked me any probing questions, I would say that I was a collector of seashells. But nobody asked me any questions. 

So I'd moved out here to Fermilab to become a particle accelerator operator.  So the thing was, I was moving across the country on my own, from my college town which I loved…across the country, to a place where it snowed and I didn’t know anyone.  I didn’t know anyTHING either. 

This job is so unique that they had to train me from the ground up, on the job.  And that meant that I was surrounded by the world’s experts and I was asking them what felt like incredibly stupid questions.  The whole time I’m sort of battling to tamp down that part of my ego that needs to prove that I’m really smart too…so that I can actually be open to all the new things that I need to learn. Which is basically every single part of every single machine. 

And the thing about the accelerators is they also operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, so everybody works a rotating shift schedule.  You know, days, evenings, weekends, holidays, all of it.  So it’s actually pretty tough to make outside friends.  It’s a pretty tough lifestyle, especially when you're spending up to sixty hours a week at work.  

At first, I thought I might bond with my fellow operators, but I didn’t really fit in.  After a while, I started to feel invisible.  I'd hear about what a good time everyone else was having at the activities that I hadn’t actually been invited to.  Or when I brought up wanting to participate in a project, I'd be told they were already done, thanks. 

I'd bring up my ideas but sometimes I'd feel completely overrun, like nobody was really listening to me at all, even in some situations where I was the one who was supposed to be in charge.  I didn’t really think they were doing it on purpose, exactly, but I felt forgotten.  And, to be honest, that isn’t really a better feeling.  

There could sometimes be periods of four or five days in a row in which I would maybe have no real-life contact with other human beings, and that was a really tough time. 

The cast of our amazing show at Fermilab in May 2018! From left to right: Lindsay Olson, artist; Kellie Vinal, Story Collider producer, Cindy Joe, engineering physicist; Michael Albrow, physicist; Erin Barker, Story Collider artistic director; Herman B. White, physicist; and Don Lincoln, physicist.

The cast of our amazing show at Fermilab in May 2018! From left to right: Lindsay Olson, artist; Kellie Vinal, Story Collider producer, Cindy Joe, engineering physicist; Michael Albrow, physicist; Erin Barker, Story Collider artistic director; Herman B. White, physicist; and Don Lincoln, physicist.

Well, I'd graduated into, unfortunately, the worst part of the recession.  So I didn’t really feel like I could just leave, because of a small thing like feeling really unhappy.  Lots of people were genuinely worse off.  And besides, I was kind of worried that maybe it was my fault that people didn’t like me, because I wasn’t likeable.  They didn’t believe the things I said because I wasn’t knowledgeable.  And they didn’t listen to me because I wasn’t worth listening to.

Well, there were a few things that kept me going in this period.  One was my personal stubbornness; and another was my fundamental belief in the value of what I was doing.  I was so in love with physics.  I felt like I was in a unique position.  I had access on the ground level to… I was on the ground level of big science and I had a level of access a few people on the planet had.  And that some of the great discoveries of physics were due, in small part, to my training and experience and my knowledge.  And that maybe humanity would know more about the vast universe around us because I was working hard and really devoted to my job. 

Late at night when everything was running smoothly and there was a sort of humming and beeping and buzzing, I felt a sense of peace and of the rightness of things.  Whenever I adjusted the machines all shift and I got a three percent increase in output, I felt proud.  Whenever there were big discoveries announced, and somebody got the Nobel Prize, and that was partly because of contributions from experiments here at Fermilab…which worked because of the work that I and my co-workers were doing, I felt like it was almost as if maybe one-millionth of that Nobel Prize was mine. 

This had been what I had been wanting to discover when I moved out here, if this was something that I could devote my life to.  And the answer felt like yes

In retrospect, what I had been looking for was some type of validation.  I wanted somebody else to notice me and tell me that I was good enough.  And the stakes had been built up so high that it became all I thought about.  If there's anything that scientists are good at, it is taking in data and drawing their own conclusions from it.  And based upon the input I was getting, I had concluded that I must not belong there. 

But in my loneliest periods there was one living, moving creature around.  And as far as Professor Snailworthy was concerned, the sun rose and set on me…and my mango scraps.  At some point, maybe with his help, I realized that my core beliefs that every single person mattered and had fundamental, inherent value should maybe also apply…to myself.  That my different perspective was important.  That my experiences were real, and that my contributions were good.  That I deserved no less gentle kindness and consideration than anyone else, and maybe I should treat myself like it.  That was a shift in mindset that helped pull me out of my funk.

There is this concept in chemistry: the nucleation site.  Conditions can be all ready for solid crystals to form out of a liquid solution, but maybe nothing will happen.  Lots of times nothing will happen, until a seed crystal is introduced.  And I've often thought that friendship works the same way.  That lots of times it’s not until you make one new friend then you meet all their friends and now, hey, you've got twenty new friends. 

That’s what happened to me.  Through that one friend I started meeting other people outside of my bubble and I started making a lot of new friends in my own right.  I still worked a lot of weird hours, and I still worked a lot of weird times, but I started to feel like somebody who mattered again.  Somebody that people would miss if she was gone. 

Well, one day, after we’d been together for about three years, I noticed that the Professor was being a little bit slow.  I mean, he was a snail, but more than usual.  But I was kind of busier now.  I'd started to get known around the department for being good at what I did, so that opened up all kinds of opportunities.  I was doing a lot of outreach, I was serving on committees, I was volunteering for everything I could.  So I didn’t spend as much time with him anymore.  I'd change his water, I'd put in his food, but I didn’t just sort of sit and watch him anymore.  We didn’t spend as much quality time together. 

Then one day, I noticed that he'd been inside of his shell for a while.  He'd never really done that for so long before, so I started to worry that maybe something was seriously wrong.  I sprayed him with water.  I put in his favorite foods.  I actually picked him up and put him in his water dish, but he barely moved.  Eventually, I had to accept that he was gone, and he was never going to come out again. 

I miss my Professor.  If there is such a thing, he was a good snail.  His tenure may not have been long, but he taught me a lot of things about patience, about life.  About being picky about your choices, but happy with the life that you make. 

He taught me to look at things from a different perspective, even if that means that you have to hang upside down for a while.  He taught me to feel the grass under my feet and the wind in my eyestalks.  And he taught me that sometimes it is possible for you to grow, and to change, even if everyone thinks that you are too small. 

He helped me make friends.  (Having a weird pet is a surprisingly great conversation starter.)  And he was the thing that I packed most carefully to take from my old life to my new.  Then, after a while, he taught me how to let go.

Someday, maybe, I will again be the girl with the weird pet.  But I will never get over being grateful that I'd bought that particular box of strawberries, and I will never forget my first snail.  Thank you.

Hear Cindy’s story on Soundcloud.


Part 2: Patrick Honner

I’m sitting at a campfire with my best high school friends.  We’re about to graduate from college.  We’re thinking about the past and the future at the same time. 

One of my friends asks the group, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” 

“I want to be in my residency on my way to being a doctor,” one of my friends says. 

“I want to have a good job and have my student loans paid off early,” says another. 

A third says, “I want to be my own boss running my own company.” 

The question makes its way around the circle to me.  I’m kind of surprised at how quickly I say, “I want to be fully initiated into the world of mathematics.”  They laughed at me too. 

I started out in a great relationship with math.  I guess I’m one of the lucky ones.  Early on, I learned to see math as an elegant system for processing and understanding the world, society, myself.  Everything, really.  It was very natural to me. 

When I got to college I didn’t know what I was going to do but I knew I loved math so I just kept taking math classes.  Along the way, I started to romanticize the idea of being a mathematician, a researcher, a scholar, part of the mathematical community.  Going to graduate school seemed like a reasonable thing to do.  I mean, how could I be more initiated into the world of mathematics than that.  I had some nagging doubts but I didn’t have any better ideas so I went. 

In grad school things started to change.  My relationship with math started to change.  I was expecting to be welcomed into a community but instead I immediately felt like I was on the outside looking in.  I could still do the math for the most part but for the first time in my life I wasn’t really sure why I wanted to.  But people on the inside they seemed to know why.  They seemed to get it.  They seemed to have better relationships with math than I had.  That kind of unnerved me. 

I increasingly started to see math and experience math as really technical, esoteric, removed from my reality, removed from everyone’s reality, really.  I was enjoying it less.  I was getting it less.  Where I used to feel successful, I now felt like I wasn’t failing.  And despite the seeming mathematical equivalence of this, things are definitely not the same thing. 

Math for America Master Teacher Patrick Honner shares his story at Caveat in New York City. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

Math for America Master Teacher Patrick Honner shares his story at Caveat in New York City. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

I started to feel alone.  That first year I spent more time throwing darts in smoky bars with my roommate than I did furthering my mathematical career.  I know I wasn’t the only one because more than a few of my grad school colleagues took up darts with us.  There were moments where being alone together brought some comfort, but ultimately not enough. 

I think part of the reason is because part of the loneliness I was feeling was kind of anticipated future loneliness.  I saw people doing this complex mathematics working on things that only a few people in the world could understand, working out of the edge of human knowledge, and it seemed kind of lonely out there to me. 

I realized grad school wasn’t the place for me.  I finished the master’s degree and I did what any disillusioned graduate student does.  I moved to Asia. 

I had a great time.  I travelled.  I taught English.  I practiced my Chinese on hundreds of cab drivers.  I got a preview of what it’s like to live under state-sponsored propaganda.  And I didn’t do math. 

It was kind of nice taking a break.  It was kind of liberating.  For the first time in my life, math really wasn’t at the center of what I was doing and it felt kind of nice.  I didn’t feel guilty or ashamed.  I did feel something, though.  I felt like part of me was unused, was muted.  I felt like I was keeping a secret, the secret that I once loved math, that it was once a huge part of who I was and that we parted under less than ideal circumstances. 

After a year in Asia I came back and I did the next thing that disillusioned graduate students do.  I took a corporate job, which was disillusioning for entirely different reasons.  Again, I had a great time.  I came to New York and I learned a lot about business and technology.  I met a lot of great people.  I learned a lot about myself.  For example, I learned that I did not want to work in a corporate job.  I just didn’t care about user acquisition or content management systems or money, flow charts. 

One thing I noticed was that math was kind of making its way back into my life.  At the various technology jobs I had, I found myself gravitating towards projects that were mathematically interesting.  I remember at a fantasy sports company I worked at, I got really obsessed with this elegant way to model the March Madness Basketball Tournament.  It was a 64-digit binary integer, and ones were victories and zeroes were losses, and it was all indexed by seed.  And I really got into it and I was excited.  It was really satisfying. 

At the end, I was really impressed with my elegant solution.  My bosses were not impressed mostly because three days after the tournament began, my elegant solution was still not working on our website, but it worked in theory. 

About that same time I remember being home at my mom’s house over the holiday and I found myself over a box of old textbooks and I was thumbing through them feeling nostalgic.  I grabbed a few and brought them back to New York with.  Before I knew it, I was working my way through them. 

My roommates didn’t know quite what to make of me sitting alone in my bedroom solving all the old exercises in my calculus textbooks. 

She asked, “So?  What?  Are you going back to school?” 

“No,” I said.  “Never,” was what I was thinking. 

Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

I didn’t really know what to make of it either.  I was just doing math.  I was just reconnecting with math.  I was having fun.  I was learning.  I didn’t think about it too much.  But I was thinking about what I was going to do next because I knew that the corporate world was not for me. 

I spent a lot of time on the subway.  I do some of my best thinking there.  I remember one afternoon on the CTrain, one of those catchy New York City Teaching Fellows posters really caught something inside of me. 

“You remember your fifth grade teacher’s name.  Who will remember yours?” 

I remember my fifth grade teacher’s name.  Mr. Safronoff.  He took me to a swamp to go salamander hunting and then he took me to McDonald’s and bought me a nine-piece chicken McNuggets afterwards. 

If loneliness characterized my grad school experience, I would say emptiness characterized my corporate experience.  I was looking for a way to make more of a difference.  I think a lot of us were after 9/11.  Teaching seemed like a way to make a difference.  I mean, Mr. Safronoff made a difference.  I knew he mattered.  Maybe I could matter too. 

I didn’t know what to expect.  I knew that I once loved math but I didn’t in a while.  I knew I could teach but I assumed that the kids would drive me crazy, but I gave it a shot. 

My first year was tough, very tough.  Everyone’s is.  I made a lot of mistakes.  I took things personally.  I got angry a lot.  I experienced night terrors.  I did not feel like I was making a difference.  I wasn’t sure how long I could do it.  All of a sudden, the loneliness of graduate school, the emptiness of the corporate world didn’t seem so bad, but I committed to seeing it through. 

That first year I remember a student of mine, Dane, was finding points on a parabola in a really odd way.  I'd given him some parabola with strange coefficients.  He was going over one up three over one up seven over one up eleven.  I was sure he was doing something wrong so I told him. 

“No, it works,” he said. 

Dane was a very confident young man.  He never felt any obligation to defer to me, which I admired about him.  It also irritated me. 

“That seems kind of random to me,” I said.  So I squatted down and I checked his work and, sure enough, those points were on the parabola.  I was intrigued. 

The mathematician I almost became might not have been that impressed, but I was a teacher.  I had a different response. 

“Do you know why this works,” I asked. 

“Not really,” he said. 

“Well, let’s figure it out.” 

Just like that, math was inviting again.  And that was just the beginning.  Students have shown me how to solve geometry problems by manipulating diagrams, how to count things more efficiently by rearranging them, how to visualize complex surfaces and space by imagining them from just the right perspective. 

When I started teaching I assumed that I would quickly get tired of talking about linear equations and probability formulas and geometry proofs but just the opposite has happened.  I have a much better relationship with math now than I've ever had.  I have my students to thank for that.  Seeing math through their eyes has once again filled me with wonder. 

Through teaching, I've rediscovered my love of math.  And I’m right back out there at the edge of human knowledge.  It’s not the edge of humanity’s knowledge but it’s the edge of our knowledge: mine, my students, my colleagues. 

And it’s not lonely out there because we’re out there together.  We’re exploring.  We’re playing.  We’re arguing.  We’re collaborating.  Far from being lonely, it’s kind of like a party.  A party at the edge of human knowledge, and I brought the math.

Hear Patrick’s story on Soundcloud.