April 23, 2015 33 Comments


I am often asked how I became a theoretical physicist. How is simple: I went to school for many years. Why is actually the interesting question.

People wonder if my parents were physicists, or perhaps academics of some sort. They weren't, but I still decided I wanted to be a scientist by age 8. And the reason is due, in no small part, to the language my parents spoke. They spoke English, yes, but strongly peppered with science.


Math Girl learning the lingo

My mother (as tone-deaf as I am) did not sing me to sleep - instead she recited the times tables. Hey, they were rhythmic too. And a few years later when I would lie awake at night - she taught me to soothe myself by calculating powers of 2 in my head.

We ate dinner off of periodic table placemats and loved our Lego space shuttle. My mom complained about the excess of entropy in my messy room, and my dad complained about the rate-limiting step in some bureaucracy.

These concepts were the seasoning of my childhood. And when I did go on to study all those years in school, that science flavor gave me an advantage. I already spoke the language. I was raised with science fluency, and so perhaps it is no surprise that I became a scientist.

This scientific fluency also gave me another advantage: when I entered the world of science, it felt like home. Physics is my country; I am a science native. So anyone who questioned my right to be here -- due to gender or any other reason -- simply seemed ridiculous. Of course I belong: here I speak the language.

There are many other paths for entering science, and many of my colleagues came to physics much later than I did. Today's young science geek though -- she can get this early start. She can have not only periodic table placemats, but also a twirly dress with orbitals. She can eat pie on pi day while wearing a pi dress.

And her family will tell science jokes. My dad's favorite:

Why did the photon pack a small suitcase?
Because it was traveling light.

**************************************

Dr. Cindy Keeler is a theoretical physicist with degrees from Stanford and UC Berkeley



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