Recently, I dated a theoretical physicist, an experience I would recommend to anyone, particularly those who watch The Big Bang Theory. It was educational not only in an academic sense—my knowledge of math and science doubled—but also in an anthropological one. For, during a period of two months, I got to run alongside physicists, to study them in their native habitat, and, a privilege afforded few others, to attend Physicist Prom.
Like gazelles or other species who suffer depredation, theoretical physicists travel in packs and establish communities where the resources they need (whiteboards, Trader Joes) are close at hand, and the annoyances they’d eschew (civilization) are far away. The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey provides just such an environment.
Abutted by forest and abetted by government funds, “The Institute” functions as a nature reserve dedicated to the protection of physicists and their ilk. There, scientists live in Institute-provided bungalows just off Einstein Drive; they’re fed their meals at the Institute refectory, where tables are assigned and assignments are inviolable; and they can choose from a variety of scientist-friendly activities including afternoon teas, low-impact nature hikes, and extracurricular seminars such as (I quote), “African Food Ways are like Jazz: Culinary Improvisations in Africa and America.”
For over fifty years, the government has given money to the Institute, in hopes that the Institute will give bombs to the government. Alas, Washington has confused applied physics with theoretical physics. While the former might result in bombs, the latter is more concerned with calculating the topological invariants of ideal tetrahedra in an n-dimensional manifold. This is a fancy way of saying that, unless the terrorists are in a dimension that doesn’t exist on a surface that hasn’t been discovered, a theoretical physicist probably can’t blow them up.
The separation between theoretical and applied physics brings me to the subject of rank. As I came to understand, a scientist’s rank within his pack is determined by three factors:
- Level of education. Grad students look down on undergraduates. Postdocs look down on grad students. Professors look down on postdocs. Michele Bachmann looks down on professors.
- Field of study. Physicists are the golden children of science; the Institute gives them the longest fellowships—three to five years—and the nicest housing. Mathematicians are the bastard stepkids; they get one-year fellowships and have to find their own lodging, which is often made out of cardboard. Historians are permitted at the Institute only that the mathematicians will have someone to mock.
- Modifiers. The modifier before your area of study bolsters your rank in inverse proportion to its practicality. For example, the “bio” in biophysics sounds practical—we live in a world where biology exists—so biophysicists rank beneath normal physicists. “Theoretical” physics sounds the least useful and is therefore the most prestigious. At all costs, avoid “applied” anything which, in the eyes of the science world, makes you the janitor.
After a few weeks spent studying physicists from afar, I finally had my chance to participate in one of their yearly social rituals, Physicist Prom, a.k.a. the Institute’s Midwinter Party. When the physicist I was dating—let’s call him Regent—forwarded me the menu and all the food had adjectives like “crusted” or “braised,” I knew I was in for a classy evening.
My first impression upon arrival: the Institute is intimidating. The buildings are large and Georgian; the grounds are centered around a lake where they drown liberal arts majors; and like Juilliard (where my friends Natalie and JoAnna went and in whose dorm I often crashed), as you walk through the campus, you realize that literally every person you see is far more talented than you. At Juilliard, I could justify this by thinking “Well, upon graduation, I’ll be able to feed myself.” At the Institute, there’s no such nostrum.
When Regent and I arrived at the party, our table consisted of a theoretical physicist, a biophysicist, a mathematician, and me. Given the previous discussion of rank, you think I’d have nothing to worry about—in the science world, a mathematician is one step above protozoan. I neglected to mention, however, that the lowest ranking of all are non-scientists. Add the fact that I studied theatre, and my tablemates were impressed that I was able to walk upright, let alone speak in polysyllables. When I asked the mathematician about his research, his look was not dissimilar to mine should a hamster ask me to summarize Neoclassicism.
After eating our dinner, which was indeed crusted and braised, Regent and I hurried to the dance floor where a band played the hits of Madonna to a crowd of eager scientists. (Turns out scientists and I like the same music.) As Regent and I bopped about the floor, inspired by both Terpsichore and vodka, a woman kept approaching us and saying, “You’re so fun!” At first, I thought fun was a euphemism for “terrible dancer,” but when she also applied that adjective to our ties (his was Winnie the Pooh, mine Sunday in the Park with George), I realized fun meant “gay.” And, in a sense, it does.
The party ended around midnight, at which time the physicists retreated to their Institute bungalows, and the mathematicians to their unsubsidized shacks. And as I walked to the train station, I thought how lucky I was: for one night, I had dined with the Institute’s chieftains. I had participated in their tribal dances and partook from their tribal cheese platter. Even today, having long since returned to civilization, my thoughts drift back to the Institute. And sometimes, when I close my eyes, I can hear the cry of theoretical physicists—singing along to Madonna covers—somewhere in the mist.
The Institute's coinage