Physics and All That Comes With It

I’m doing a PhD in Physics from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Guwahati. I study stuff that very few people ever really go deep into. I have solved rigorous math problems during my academic life.

But do I really think I know complicated science and can just get about solving equations by looking at the motion of ballerinas? Definitely not!

For someone who enjoys studying Physics and got good grades in her graduation and masters courses, it surprisingly took me a long time to accept that I do fit in. One of the many things that we don’t talk about in this world of “intellectuals” and academicians is the difficulty one faces in believing oneself – especially at an institution where each person has an excellent academic track record.

During my first year of graduation at Delhi University (DU), I was dazzled to hear some of my peers talk about string theory on the canteen table with the confidence of being experts in the field. It took some time to realise everything they knew about the topic was majorly from the popular television show Big Bang Theory. 

Over time, I have observed that there is an intense urge amongst a vast majority of students and scholars to sound intellectual – loud and clear – all the time. Even during chai breaks, I have seen fellow researchers trying to answer questions as fast as possible in order to prove their expertise.

Unfortunately, this is a common trend across all the IITs.

Also read: On Personal Politics and Growing Out of Intellectual Snobbery

As a result, I have often felt insecure and not-so-confident about my knowledge. I have always felt the need to confirm the theory several times and think about logical answers before giving an answer.

However, with time, I have also noticed that these drop-of-the-hat answers often turn out to be wrong. Hence, the dazzle of fast answers and loud ideas have – rightfully so – worn off.

Since my days at DU to now at IIT-Guwahati, I have come across true hardcore geniuses and decently good, hardworking researchers. And then, at a tangential bloc is the group which makes an excellent show of being at the top of their field; the ones capable of throwing you into self-doubt; the ones that portray a necessity to talk Physics all the time.

Despite sounding negative, I am sharing this side of the story because I know that there are a lot of students and researchers like me, who often wonder why they do not seem to have as much to say as their peers do, or whether they are “intellectual” enough for this field.

Also, I am not trying to argue against positive discussions of new and old ideas, or passionate talk of research. In fact, we do have a lot of such discussions. The only problem is when they get toxic – with everyone desperately trying to chip in in order to prove themselves.

And this toxicity can often derail a researcher from their path. It’s crucial for young students to identify this and not think of themselves any less. I do not really care any more about fitting in – the happiness I feel when my photolithography etching go well in the nanotech lab is enough to feed me.

Also read: The Scourge of ‘Intellectual Mansplaining’

Now, I can proudly admit that I am a physicist who loves Physics because of the way the subject explains everyday phenomenon. I am a physicist because I learnt from Physics that a blue star is hotter than a red one, and also the reason why. I am a physicist because I feel a sense of completeness when I read of the ways the theories of quantum mechanics shook the very foundations of concepts held so dear by previous scientists. I am a physicist because I actually enjoy solving complex mathematical problems and arriving at something that resembles a solution.

But I am not a physicist who is constantly thinking of new research ideas. I am not a physicist on whom apples fall, and even if they do, I would probably google ideas on how to make an amazing apple pie.

Instead, I am the kind who would rather talk about having steaming cups of coffee in a tiny Himalayan hamlet. While the people around talk about working overnight in the lab, I boast about swimming 24 horizontal laps at the break of dawn. I enjoy my work and feel a sense of fulfilment and happiness with my research. For now, that is all I need to keep me going.

I do not know whether I will ever become a hardcore researcher, one who publishes articles on a daily basis. But I sure hope I will become a teacher of Physics, the kind who will inspire the students that Physics has a beauty to it, and that you needn’t regularly have Elon Musk-type ideas to be accepted in the field.

I dream of guiding students to find a sense of fulfilment on exploring the depths of how light is both a particle and a wave. Students who can see a ray (or is it a stream of photons?) of hope and whose heart lightens up amidst a dismal pandemic on reading how we can never predict the exact location of an electron – and how we live in a world of probabilities.

Until then, my fingers are crossed.

Angana Bhattacharya is a PhD Scholar at the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati

Featured image credit: Shelagh Murphy/Unsplash