Marissa Lingen (mrissa) wrote,
Marissa Lingen

Physics and not-physics.

So I got asked the same question two different ways, or at least a similar question. One person said, "I'd be interested to hear why you switched from physics to writing full time, and what had drawn you to physics in the first place." Another said, "Why would you not go back to physics?"

Well. I was drawn to physics because the math is so pretty. In my experience, there are two kinds of physics geeks: the kind who like to tinker with stuff and later pick up the math background, and the kind who like math and later hone their tinkering skills. This does not map neatly to experimentalists and theorists, but it's all right to first-order approximations. I like the kind of math that goes with physics. I really, really like diff equs. They are good fun. More to the point, I think of most math in terms of the physics it can or can't do: linear algebra is for quantum mechanics. Etc.

My favorite classes were Modern, Modern lab, Math Methods, Quantum, Stat Mech, and Nuclear. (Four of those six were taught by the same person, and if I had chosen an advisor based on common interests, I would have picked Tom. And I really liked Tom. It's just that Dennis and I had already bonded.) I liked it when things worked out interestingly, and I also liked putting my hands on the weirdness and making it go. That's something physics has up on fiction: the weirdness stays in your head, with fiction. Even when it's down on the page, it's weird in the heads of people. But when you've got one of the labs going that demonstrates quantum nature of reality, you can slowly change a voltage and watch charge quantization under your very own hands. You can make light behave like a wave and like a particle in the same hour, on the same lab bench. It's a shivery feeling, making the weirdness go. I don't know of anything like it. Maybe pregnancy will be -- making the weird with your own body -- but maybe it'll be a different feeling of weird-making. Couldn't tell you yet.

I also really liked physics culture when I was in it -- at least at Gustavus. For the first time in my life, I couldn't coast through my classes. Doing well meant something. There was always a way to do better. The only place I'd had that before was with writing, and writing was lonely. There was nowhere to flop down and go, "Gahhhh, that story kicked my ass!" and have somebody commiserate. In the physics office you could always collapse at your desk or into the ugly green chair: "That test kicked my ass!" "You always say that, and you always do fine. Now, me, on the other hand...." "Oh, yeah, sure, you. Hey, what are you doing this summer?" "I thought I'd try to work for Paul. You gonna?" "Love Paul, hate optics. I'm going to try to get an REU somewhere else." "Cool. Hey, is that Rutherford scattering almost done?" "Aaaaah, I forgot to reset the run!" [exeunt, at a run] Being a physics major came with camaraderie. It meant something. About every second professor I had outside the department would inform me solemnly that they'd heard that the two toughest departments on campus were physics and their own department. Having a hyperverbal physics major in class made the weaker of the profs quake; several of them blanched and muttered "oh God" or something about my advisor when I'd been asking too many questions in class and they found out I was a physics major.

My intro creative writing course was filled with people who wanted an easy A and people who were convinced of their own creativity but had no idea where to direct it or no intention of working at it. There were a very few exceptions, but we didn't have much in common for type of work or anything like that. My upperclass fiction studio was, if anything, worse: my classmates kept bugging the professor to tell them what to write about. They wanted assignments. They wanted to be told to write a four to ten page story about Florida. I had taken the class to have an official schedule spot for my writing in a busy semester. I bitterly resented the few intrusions my professor made into my own project schedule; he was wise and did not make many. I have no idea what he told the other kids in conferences -- maybe he told them to write 500 words about crustaceans or 2000 words about death.

And here I wrench my brain away from attempts to formulate 2500-word story about crustacean death, and that, ultimately, is the point. Not killing as many shrimp as possible, but that there is always a story in here, and behind the story is another story, and one of the scariest things in the world is my "starters" file, because it's got a million and one titles and ideas, and many of them spark other titles and ideas as I read them, and I get dazzled, and I will never get to them all.

My brain never did that in physics.

I don't know if it ought to, or if nobody's does, but the point is, it didn't, and it does with fiction. And there is only so much Mris to be had, and human relationships are really important to me -- more important than pretty math, even -- so it wasn't a good idea to take time and energy from them. And in part I backed myself into this corner -- my brain is full of bits of fiction in part because I feed it full of other bits of fiction, and because I trained it to go on, to work them out and not just have little snippets that sound great in your head and don't go anywhere. I didn't understand the implications of that decision at first. I didn't know that it would make physics pale for me, that I would eventually have to leave. I thought I could do both, and maybe I could have if I wanted nothing else of life, no friends beyond lab buddies, no family, nothing else. But there just wasn't enough of me to do both, and when that much was true --

Well. I wanted to say there was nothing I could have done. But there was. It's one angle on the heart of flesh/heart of stone story: it wouldn't have been like a faucet, but I think I could have turned the fiction off. I don't think it would have turned the physics on, though. I think I would have been giving up the ideas and the excitement and the frustration and the feelings of good work and all of that for a steady, middle-of-the-road job as a professor at a small college. There's nothing wrong with that work. It can be inspired work, as several of my profs demonstrated. It can be a real life's work, a calling, and not just a job. But I don't think it would have been that for me. I think something in me would have gone quiet that shouldn't go quiet. I don't regret keeping that something alive.
Tags: full of theories, stupid brain tricks, you can take the girl out of the lab
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