It's 2 a.m. and I'm awake. One's sense of time lapses in this subterranean world of optics laboratories in the basement of the University of Toronto's physics building.
There's a 20-second rhythm to this experiment, a carefully controlled sequence of shutters opening and closing for laser beams, of mechanical switches sending electrical currents to magnetic field coils, of green waveforms appearing on the oscilloscope screen as radio frequency fields manipulate.
Many people have worked to fill this room with the machines necessary to make these 2,000 atoms of rubidium cold enough to enter into the quantum mechanical world. Once there, these atoms stop behaving as individuals and start acting together, as if in community, in a new phase of matter we call a Bose-Einstein condensate.
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Four hours ago, I saw a hint that this behaviour continued even as I split the cloud in two pieces, and that's neat. It means the quantum mechanics I teach to undergraduates really works. And I want to see more.
I often wonder how I came to be here. It wasn't the straight and narrow path that may seem obvious to anyone who knows my past. I was probably the best student in my kindergarten class. I graduated at the top of my junior high class, and again in high school. School was what I was good at, and math and science were what I loved most. My father's influence and the practicality of a real job led me into engineering as an undergraduate, where I continued to be better at writing exams than my colleagues. I graduated at the top of my class at university, too.
When I finished my undergraduate studies, I froze. I didn't know what to do with my life. I'd done exactly everything I'd ever hoped for, which was going to university. Two choices were before me: I could continue studying at the graduate level or I could start teaching others about the things I found most interesting, probably at the high-school level.
The first, I knew, would satisfy my hunger for learning but leave me feeling like my time was spent in selfish pursuit of some small piece of knowledge that had little bearing on the quality of anyone's life. The second, I knew, would be rewarding and would allow me to be a role model, but I feared I would be wasting some talent I had been given. This conflict, this decision, paralyzed me, and in the end I decided to do nothing. I hadn't done nothing in such a long time and a whole year of it was what I needed.
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Nothing wasn't quite nothing. I spent a year volunteering with elementary-school students in the mornings and homeless people in the winter evenings. I also worked part-time for a few months with an organization devoted to the promotion of women in science and engineering.
The chair of this organization was an amazing woman, a professor near retirement who devoted much of her time to the organization and the promotion of science to children while maintaining an outstanding reputation as a scientist in her field. Though I didn't realize it at the time, I think it was seeing this woman pursuing what she loved while still sharing her passion and encouraging others that keeps me in the lab at 2 a.m. on a Thursday.
The decision was one of those funny ones. I was sitting in my living room one cold January night during my year of nothingness and I just knew. I knew I wanted to go to grad school. My choice was as clear that day as it could have been, and it never wavered after that moment. I sent in my applications to two Canadian universities, I chose one and, five years later, I have a master's degree and am working on my PhD.
The question of whether what I'm doing is useful still pokes its head at me every once in a while. But it doesn't bother me like it once did. I've realized as my studies delve deeper and deeper that these things are worth knowing, even if I'm the only one ever to know them.
Physics is worth knowing because it is beautiful. It is the hidden secret of the scientist. We may claim to be researching some topic or other because it is "useful to society" or it will revolutionize some technology but, more often than not, we are simply fascinated by some small detail about how the world works and we can't stop thinking about it until we understand it better. We are constantly astounded by the way a few basic principles work together to explain so many different things, and sit in wonder and awe at the beauty of the world. Like an artist, I want to share this beauty with others. I want them to know what it is to see through my eyes.
And so, now that it's almost 3 a.m., the question of what I'm doing here isn't so curious. My experiment continues to click away in its 20-second rhythm as my computers collect data revealing the behaviour of a tiny cloud of atoms, behaviour that will help me understand the nature of my world. And if it doesn't quite work, my colleagues will come and we'll try again tomorrow.
Lindsay LeBlanc lives in Toronto.
Illustration by Sylvia Nickerson.