The Quantum List Project: No more tears

I once made my science teacher cry.

As a teen, I devoured chemistry and (especially) physics like a fiend – I had no doubt then that I would one day be a scientist. A double PhD in astrophysics and mathematics, I told people when they asked.

Then one year, I had a science teacher who had no specialization in science – she taught the required curriculum, but could not (I was sure) go beyond it. I was steamed. I challenged her continually in class. I’d hammer her with questions like, “Why are blue things blue?” and never be satisfied with her answers. I was not charming.

Things came to a head the day she told the class that glass was a solid, not a liquid.

“O-ho!” I thought. “She is so wrong.” I debated with her to the point where everyone started to get uncomfortable. The next day, I brought a book from home that stated that glass was a very, very thick liquid, which explains why old glass panes have ripples and seems to be thicker at the bottom than the top.

I won. She cried.

Two things about this story: First, don’t make your teachers cry. It’s mean and rude, and benefits nobody. I regret my behavior.

Second, I was wrong! Window glass is, in fact, an “amorphous solid,” not a liquid at all. Amorphous solids have a more ambiguous molecular structure than “traditional” solids. For instance, most solids will liquify at a certain temperature – ice melts into water, a solid cylinder of candle wax becomes a puddle. Amorphous solids don’t have a specific melting point, but just ease from solid to liquid and back their temperature changes. They blur the dividing lines between phases.

Amorphous solids are appealing, because they make the structure of the world more complicated. I was originally taught that matter existed in three phases only – solid, liquid and gas. Then someone threw plasma as a fourth amigo. Then I started hearing about Bose-Einstein condensates, superfluids, “mesophases” and “polymorphic phases.” It turns out the same molecule types can be configured in dozens of ways, each with its own properties and characteristics.

When a physics problem turns out to have nuance and ambiguity (which almost always happens) it’s difficult not to turn it into metaphor. For instance, I didn’t end up becoming a scientist. Neither, though, did I give up on a life of science. I became a science journalist, which, if you do it right, makes you kind of an amorphous scientist.

In a laboratory or on campus, I always feel a thrill of belonging. Temperamentally, intellectually, I feel at home. I’m among people who are asking the questions I’ve always wanted answered (like “Why are blue things blue?”)

When I’m in a newsroom, I get a different kind of rush that comes from being around people dedicated to storytelling and sharing information. In a very different way, I feel at home here too. It’s at the nexus of these two worlds where things get complicated and interesting.

It took me many years to find career equilibrium between science and storytelling. I’ve been at it a long time now, though, and I think I can safely say that for me, this state of existence is much more than just a phase.

[A note on this post: When I write about my past, I have a tendency that can generously be described as “remembering things in a way that makes them a better story.” Caveat emptor.]