Today I am a physics Ph.D in training, as in quantum mechanics, conservation of energy, Newton and Einstein, protons and quarks; and Ph.D, as in Doctor of Philosophy. I read a lot, and I sleep sometimes, when I get to it. I am a graduate student. I am struggling to form and emerge from the ether. It’s hard work. I attend special lectures by Nobel Laureates, and I try to keep up. I go to conferences and listen to world-experts. Lots of papers. Lots of Powerpoint presentations. My office is the Ivory tower, second floor, last door on your right, ask for Brian.
“Whaaaat?” is what my mother calls it. When I told my father, his answer was a long blank stare that peered at me over the top of his Dallas Morning News.
Let me take you back. It is 11 AM on a Saturday morning, and the Texas football game will be on soon. It is my undergraduate sophomore year. I am home for a long weekend; I have decided, and I am going to tell my parents my choice of major–physics.
Dad is sitting on the couch in a faded green t-shirt, a token he keeps from that one time he ran a 10-kilometer fun run. Mom is in her robe. She brings more cinnamon toast and slices of cantaloupe–yummy. “Physics?” she says, “Do you mean like ball bearings and sliding blocks?” she laughs to herself.
Our dog has jumped up onto the couch, fixated with his canine eyes staring straight at my dad’s plate of sugary delight. In mom’s other hand she is holding our Mr. Coffee coffee pot. She refills dad’s coffee mug, the one I gave him on Father’s Day, eons ago. He smiles. Then, he looks at me. “So, physics, you know its going to be hard?” dad says with his fatherly cynicism. My dad also majored in Physics.
“Yeah, dad,” I say, “You know I kinda like doing what’s hard.” I rattled on about how well I did in high school, my AP credit, and so on, inserting “gosh” and “you don’t understand” and “whatever.” I was twenty years old, but if you closed your eyes and imagined, I sounded like a fifteen year old pleading for my driver’s permit. “It will be no problem. Believe me,” I said. “Don’t worry, I can do it.” I can drive myself. I can do physics. I can. I will. I believe.
A couple of years ago I started graduate school. My speciality is experimental relativistic heavy-ion nuclear physics. A mouth full, I know. My dad isn’t so cynical anymore. When he looks at me–over his newspaper–I sense a look of tiny admiration. My dad didn’t get his Ph.D. He went to business school–an MBA–“one of those.” Physics may not have the lucrative potential of a medical or law or business degree, but to me it is super-hard. And that’s it, that’s why, this is what I believe. I believe in doing hard things. I’m twenty-five, and I’m a nuclear physicist.
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