Institute of Physics scholarship award and full interview

I’m proud and honoured to share that I’ve been awarded a PhD research scholarship by the Institute of Physics. An announcement by my university can also be found here.

As I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog, my PhD research focuses on M-theory and the question of string theory’s non-perturbative completion. To be a recipient of the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund on the basis of my planned research in mathematical physics, which included having to deliver a presentation on my topic and an interview with the physics panel, is quite satisfying. Admittedly, I was a bit nervous knowing that I can be maths heavy and that this might not be recieved too well in-front of a well-distinguished panel comprised mostly of experimental physicists! But I am delighted that the wonderful physics content of my research was acknowledged.

In conjunction with the announcement of my scholarship award, I was invited to participate in a more personal interview designed for the non-physics reader. Within I answer a variety of questions, including about my current research. I also share a bit more about myself, my upbringing, and other personal stories and reflections.

Below is the complete version of the interview I gave for the Institute of Physics. There is also a shortened, edited version that can be found here.

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1. Tell us about your work – and what drives you (We want to know about your area of physics and why you’re passionate about it. What does it mean to you? Why is it important? Imagine the reader is not a physicist).

Firstly, thank you for inviting me to answer questions.

The situation today in fundamental and high-energy physics is incredibly interesting. A lot has happened since the 1950s or so, with many great successes. Just think: essentially all observable phenomena are well described, on the one hand, by quantum field theory and the Standard Model of particle physics, and also by Einstein’s theory of general relativity on the other. We have established tremendously accurate descriptions of the very small – quantum theory – and the tremendously massive – cosmology and astrophysics. Modern physics has made some remarkable achievements, both in advancing human knowledge, and in supporting how we may apply the laws of nature to develop important technologies. Having said that, it is almost certain that these fundamental theoretical frameworks are incomplete. For example, general relativity and quantum field theory break down when we start to study situations at the centre of a black hole or close to the big bang. Many readers will likely also have heard of concepts like dark energy and other things, which also currently remain unknown.

A big question in fundamental physics, perhaps the deepest and most important, has to do with what we call quantum gravity. This represents the unification of general relativity with quantum field theory. I work in mathematical physics, and, in particular, my research is focused in string / M-theory. Today, this is the most promising and indeed leading theory of quantum gravity.

One of the great successes of string theory is how, in a single consistent mathematical framework, we have a theory that combines gravity with the quantum laws of nature. This means that at very large scales, we find gravity as Einstein described it in his general theory of relativity. But on very small scales, in which space-time is discretised, we have a theory that captures the idea of quantised units of gravitational energy. We think of these quantised units as particles that we call gravitons. In practical language, string theory describes how the curvature of space-time emerges from the existence of gravitons. Thus, we have a quantum theory of gravity.

Despite the many successes of string theory, we still face some open problems and challenges in formulating the complete theory. It is not possible, at this point, to speak of such challenges without a degree of technicality as this is a highly technical subject. What I will say is that, in keeping to practical language, one of the biggest and most important questions we face concerns what may be described as the non-perturbative completion of string theory. This is what my PhD research is focused on understanding.

To explain this, allow me to share a bit of history. As late as 1995, we had five perturbative string theories – type I, type IIA, type IIB, and the two flavours of heterotic string theory (SO(32) and E8 × E8) – and these were seen to be distinct. Much of modern physics is built using tools and approaches that deal with what we may describe here as local, approximate, perturbative descriptions of reality. And these perturbative theories of fundamental physics – the five string theories – are remarkably successful and beautiful. Just from the humble idea of the extended of object of the string, which is a generalisation of point particle theory (which one may have some familiarity with going back to undergraduate or A-level physics), we can generate some brilliant results like Einstein’s gravity. But just think of the situation in the mid-1990s: in quantum gravity, we had five theories without a way of knowing how to select the correct one. This is quite a messy situation! But one of the amazing qualities of string theory is that it comes with a wealth of symmetries.  And it was following a very important proposal by Edward Witten that the five perturbative string theories were found to be deeply related by a number of non-trivial dualities, or, for the sake of practicality, what we may describe here as symmetry relations. So rather than being distinct, the five string theories were found to represent different limits of an overarching theory.

This is quite an evocative idea, namely that there is some deeper underlying structure to quantum gravity, from which things like space-time may even emerge! This overarching theory is known as M-theory, and the non-perturbative completion of string theory to M-theory is specifically what my PhD research seeks to investigate.  M-theory is truly remarkable for several reasons. Although the five perturbative string theories exist in ten space-time dimensions, M-theory exists in 11 space-time dimensions. So it is a higher dimensional theory. Given that one can think of it as the parent theory to string theory – i.e., as a single mathematical structure that unifies the zoo of perturbative string theories, with its low-energy effective action being what we call supergravity – it represents a unique theory of quantum gravity. More than that, M-theory is, in every sense, the leading candidate for a Theory of Everything (ToE). It is also the mathematical theory that makes sense of the dynamical physical objects we call branes (objects that, again, emerge in higher dimensions as a generalisation of point particle theory), which propagate through space-time according to the rules of quantum mechanics.

However, although there presently exist many hints and plausibility arguments in support of the proposed existence of M-theory, a systematic formulation of the non-perturbative theory remains an open problem. There are many reasons why a fundamental and rigorous formulation of M-theory is important. Not only do we expect to find new physics and new mathematics – in fact, it has been described as a great unexplored ocean in this regard – it will also help provide a final say on things like fundamental string cosmology.

As you may be able tell, it is an area of research I find to be incredibly exciting, not least because it is potentially so fundamental. In recent years a number of especially exciting developments have begun to crystalise in how we may attack the question of a rigorous formulation of M-theory, including the study of what we call higher structures. The presence of higher structures – or what we may summarise as higher homotopy theory – in fundamental physics is in and of itself a super interesting fact. And, as I mentioned at the outset, a lot of what we talk about and study also has to do with combining spacetime geometry and quantum field theory defined as generalised geometry. As I have alluded, some of the implications are grand, including the extension of spacetime itself, with a further consequence being the possibility that geometry and gravity – indeed, space and time – are emergent concepts.

As I work in mathematical physics and find great interest in both foundational maths and fundamental physics, I enjoy this area of research because there is a wonderful interplay between the two. My PhD research is positioned at this interface.

2. What drew you to this area of physics? (Tell us a little about your physics journey and how you ended up focusing on this area. When did you first become excited about physics? What was it that excited you? What led you to where you are now?).

By most accounts within the formal parameters and constraints of mainstream education, my physics journey up to this point has been described as highly unconventional. This is certainly largely owed to the fact that I have Asperger’s, and as a person with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) I experience a lot of difficulties and unique challenges. Formal education environments are certainly something that I did not cope with well in the past, and something I continue to struggle participating in today.

Due to the challenges that come with my Asperger’s and also the difficult conditions I experienced growing up, I was often in and out school for many years. To be completely honest, there were a lot of times when I tried to go to school or participate at a university, and it was just never sustainable for me. The classrooms or lecture halls were too overwhelming; the curriculum was too slow or uninteresting; time pressures were too difficult to manage; the lectures or lessons were not fundamental enough or too restrictive for my interest. It was often, I suppose, the case that I would rather be given the textbook and left on my own to work through and derive everything. I am much more comfortable with that independence. I have also grown used to being in my own space, with all of my books, with my maths and physics, working and studying on the things I find meaningful. So, I think there are a lot of reasons, from my perspective, as to why formal education has always been in some ways inharmonious or discordant.

In truth, without the right support, I probably wouldn’t have successfully joined the University of Nottingham and still be working at the university today. It was a massive personal step for me, one that we worked up to over a couple of years, and once I arrived at university it was incredibly challenging on so many levels. It required a lot of support, patience, and understanding. But I was also incredibly fortunate to have landed at such a fantastic school, with great support staff for people like me with ASD. The same can’t be said in all cases, and there are a lot of brilliant people out there with ASD that don’t receive the right support, or who don’t have the opportunity or foundation to pursue a formal university education for social, economic, or cultural reasons. I think I am decent at maths and physics, capable enough to teach myself string theory for example, and I was super close to not being a university student because, in a multitude of ways, I generally don’t ‘fit’ in the way that is expected.

Needless to say, and to return to the question, so much of my life so far has been outside of formal education. As a result, I have self-studied almost everything I know. When I was younger, I taught myself calculus and eventually expanded my self-learning to higher mathematics. The same with much of physics, from classical mechanics through to quantum field theory – I had already taught myself a lot of this prior to entering university as a first-year undergraduate. This is why my physics background may be described as unconventional. But to be honest, from my perspective, teaching myself maths and physics without relying on a teacher or sitting a class, seems like quite a normal and reasonable thing to do. I work at my own pace and ask my own questions. I can explore and enjoy maths and physics in my own way, giving myself as much time as I deem necessary to explore a topic fundamentally. You know, I think in a lot of ways maths and physics have become some of the only things in the world that truly make sense to me.

When I joined the University of Nottingham, I had been developing a lot of interest in general relativity, quantum field theory, and quantum gravity. I read about a number of different theories of quantum gravity, many of which I found to suffer mathematical inconsistency among other things. This is how I found my way to string theory, also with the encouragement and support of my professor Tony Padilla, who is now also my supervisor.

During the first weeks of my undergraduate, I took my string studies very seriously, and around this time my interest in non-perturbative theory began to crystalise. In that first year, the School of Physics obtained permission from the university to accelerate me to a Master of Research degree. My thesis involved the study of double sigma models in string theory. I am now looking forward to studying for my PhD within the Particle Theory Group at the University of Nottingham.

3. What does winning the scholarship mean to you – and what difference will it make? (How do you feel about winning? How do you feel about taking on a PhD? Would you be able to take on a PhD without it? In what ways will it help/make a difference?)

I’m both proud and honoured to have been awarded the scholarship for the duration of my PhD. I’m also incredibly proud to have affiliation with the Institute of Physics and to take on an ambassadorial role, something I take very seriously.

Coming from where I do, outside of formal education, I used to sometimes sneak into university lecture halls and, well, there were times when I would think to myself that perhaps I could do a PhD in physics or be a good researcher in a formal academic environment. I don’t always think about it so explicitly these days, but it truly means everything to me to be doing my PhD in mathematical physics. One could speak to the depth of the notion of existential meaning here, in terms of one’s projects and interests in life. But it is more than that for me. I would be working on my maths and physics no matter what, because it is what I know and it is what interests me; but now I have the opportunity to do so within a formal environment without financial concern, social judgement, or other pressures and worries.

To formally pursue a PhD at such a wonderful university and as part of a very cool research group, to get to continue working with Tony Padilla and to talk strings every day, and really to be able to study my maths and physics in an encouraging environment, is kind of life-changing. I am very grateful and I look forward to the future, where, hopefully, after a good PhD I can continue to contribute quality work and carve out a formal research career, maybe even teach strings one day. The scholarship has helped provide a good foundation in pursuing these ends.

4. What challenges have you faced to get to this point? (Any barriers/challenges that you have had to overcome that you feel comfortable talking about. Has anyone discouraged you? Have your personal circumstances made it harder? Have societal barriers/conditions had an impact? How have you overcome these challenges?).

In addition to my lifelong struggle with my Asperger’s, which, clinically, has been diagnosed as severe, I also had a very difficult childhood and experienced a lot of bad stuff growing up. I grew up in an environment that was incredibly dysfunctional, hostile, and in many moments scary. There was a lot of abuse and neglect, periods in and out poverty, with no heat in the winter – just not very nice things for quite a long time. By the time I was 14 or 15, without the right support, I could barely function, let alone cope. And in these circumstances, the pursuit of one’s interests and intellectual passions were rarely permitted. Instead, there were many times in life that were largely about survival and trying to escape. These were times that were generally quite debilitating. For years I also struggled with my mental health. I still do, although there is always an aspect of that owed to my ASD.

I can talk about it all now because I’ve had a lot of time and support in working through the traumatic events and the terrible stuff I witnessed and experienced. Growing up, I moved to different families, which offered great reprieve, and there have been so many extraordinary people that brought me into their homes, sometimes for years, and supported me as I slowly found my feet in life. These are individuals and families who intervened to fill the gap and take on abandoned parental responsibilities. They did so much for me, helping enable a positive foundation to grow and develop in life, to self-actualise, and to be able to pursue my interests. So, despite having to face a lot of challenges in life, some of which are quite extreme, I am also very thankful today. My life could have turned out differently on many occasions. And partly why I share that here is because, well, maybe someone will read this and take something from it. There are a lot of people that have ASD or that grow up in bad conditions and are never given the proper support they need as human beings – a positive and healthy foundation to life from which one can then begin to move. It’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which, while problematic in places, serves as a reminder that the meaning of society is to help foster the conditions in which all citizens can realise their full potential. As a society, I think from a fundamental humanistic perspective we ought to never stop demanding socio-economic, cultural conditions that give as broad a scope of people as broad of a horizon of opportunity as possible.

It is also the case for me that in growing up in incredibly difficult conditions, I have come to recognise that I owe a lot to my Asperger’s and my sense of personality. I think it enabled me in many ways to survive the incomprehensible by maintaining a presence of mind. I eventually learned to cope with and understand life through my studies. Not only did my books come to provide a welcomed and flourishing space, they offered explanation and detailed insight into all that I had observed: psychologically, sociologically, economically, and so on.  One way that it is described is that, for some people, they learn to manage their present experience by thinking of their past experiences as reference points; for me, this is how I use books. So, aside from my beloved physics and maths, I have studied everything with great interest: from the whole of psychology and human behaviour to our best current theories on social structures and relations, history, anthropology, economics, philosophy, and in many ways across the social and natural sciences. I have never been dissuaded by the challenges I have faced. As a young adult, outside of formal education, I spent my days alone at public and university libraries, or sitting at the back of university lecture halls that I had snuck into.

I’ll share a story that is quite personal to me. As a child, when times were especially difficult, I remember sneaking away to the far and unvisited corner of a local park. Lying there, on the opposite side of the hill that faced away from everything and everyone, I would stare at the clouds and contemplate existence. Particles, birds, planets, and stars. Why do clouds exist and why are they shaped the way they are? Why do they move as though they are moving through fluid, floating without support? This was a site of one of my first philosophical and scientific reflections. And, really, despite my many difficulties in formal education environments, some of which are ongoing, science and academics has played an incredibly important role in my life. It has become a natural extension of myself as a person with Asperger’s who is driven to understand in accordance with my life spent with my books. I learn about human relations and behaviour through their empirical study just as I learn about quantum fields through my physics. I think with that inquisitiveness, one of my earliest memories of being excited about physics was when I was no more than 6 or 7 years old. I saw a photograph of a professor standing in front of a chalk board, and written on the board was sigma notation. Looking back, it was likely generality relativity that was being taught, but the mystery of the language, the power of physics that we may describe the nature of reality, it always stuck with me.

As I said before my ASD also brings many of its own unique struggles and daily challenges. I require a lot of support. I can compute scattering amplitudes but struggle to manage a calendar or money. I sit here writing because I am fortunate to have received support with my Asperger’s, to have a stable home environment, and to have a loving and caring partner, Beth. There is a lot of well-defined research which, last I checked, showed that about 80% of people with ASD struggle to hold down a full-time job or be independent, and it was estimated that suicide rates are 10 times more than average. Not all autistic people can work, and, for sure, I know that struggle to maintain my own independence. There were times when I was ashamed or pressured because I couldn’t maintain a job or understand how to pay rent, because I couldn’t maintain independence, understand how to manage my bills, and organise my life. Prior to intervention, I was kind of just left to work it out. Now, of course, that is my experience – everyone will have their own. But the point is there are so many simplistic narratives about autistic people and even just about poverty in general. In education, I was once deemed a troublemaker! Another lost soul and statistic.

I think we need to do more as a society to understand the complexity of individual situations, and we absolutely need to do more to combat ongoing prejudices and to support people with ASD.

5. What would you say to those who have also faced barriers to following their dreams to pursue physics at university and beyond? (Any advice/encouragement would be great).

I don’t want to be naïve and just say “go for it”. The reality is that different people have different challenges with different barriers. If a person loves physics and it is their main passion in life, but at the same time facing homelessness or a precarious existence, it is not just a matter of saying “go for it” and “you can do anything”. Poverty and class can be barriers. Racism, too, can be a significant barrier. Disability, mental health, physical health – people face all sorts of different challenges.

What I am trying to say is that if someone dreams to study physics, that is amazing because physics can offer a person so much in life. They should do so regardless of age, gender, race, disability, class, and so on. Absolutely. But saying that is not enough. People also need support, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It is up to our institutions – university, government, etc – and it is up to us as a physics community to identify where support may be lacking. If you are a person wanting to pursue your passion for physics but struggling with personal circumstances or barriers to doing so, don’t be ashamed to seek support. Universities have advice and support services who can often help you to find ways forward.

6. Why do you think diversity in physics is so important?

Unfortunately, I am not familiar with the data and the mathematics, so I can only present my personal thoughts which I don’t think have much or any value. What I can perhaps share, as a physicist who also has interests in biology, especially mathematical biology, and who enjoys thinking about life, is a broader or perhaps more fundamental perspective about the concept of diversity that I find inspiring.

Let me put it this way: when we speak of diversity, what are we actually (in a fundamental sense) speaking of? I find, for me at least, that discussion about diversity can sometimes result in confusion. The word is used in many contexts with many meanings. In political and sociological language, the structure of the language often implies an antonym of homogeneous groups, or, sometimes, as an antonym of a specific individual as a group: a white male with certain physical attributes, class distinction, and heterosexual orientation. From the dictionary definition of diversity, on the other hand, we find that it means difference or variance. I think science has an important perspective to offer in this precise sense.

From a genetic-centric view, and certainly also in other parts of biology, we have a concept called normal human variety. To that, I am not just speaking here of race and racial diversity. I am talking about differences in people of all kinds, including what today is called neurodiversity, which is meant to describe people like me with autism. My point is that, prior to the development of genome sequencing, people would use phenotypic characteristics (skin colour, bone structure, head size, etc.) to assess things like racial differences and even to attempt to define the concept of race, smartness, and so on. Indeed, still today cognitive bias and other prejudices are based on phenotypic characteristics of human beings and, at times, quite archaic ways of thinking. We see it every day.

I won’t get into here the debates between realism, anti-realism, and constructivists, although the limited attempts to argue the former in this context are like Swiss cheese while the latter can also be too one-dimensional. In any case, what I am driving at is how, in the past (unfortunately these attitudes still seem to manifest in the minority) what was thought of as different species or races among humans and other biological organisms was determined by phenotypic characteristics and as a result, phylogenetic trees and different groupings of humans and other organisms were often incorrectly constructed. But with technological advancements and our ability to sequence genomes quicker, more efficiently and cheaply, we have been able to compile larger genome databases with some powerful algorithms that can compare genomes more accurately. Thus, in biology, phylogenetic trees, the relationships between species, and divergences within species, can be more accurately assessed and drawn. What we find is that a lot of things that may have been thought to have been be related are not and vice versa. When comparing genomes of people from different parts of the world, we have found that although there are many minor variations between the genomes of humans as a whole, there is not enough difference to define different races. That is to say, there is no evidence for taxonomic delineation according to any definition of species or sub-species within humans, such that phylogenies inferred from mitochondrial DNA do not show any clear distinctions.

This is what I find inspiring and what I think about when thinking of diversity. The story of human beings, of our evolution, and of the universality we all share on this rock in some isolated region of the universe – it is quite beautiful. The Homo sapiens lineage has relatively recent origin when compared to other evolutionary timescales, like the planet Earth we call home, and our cosmic insignificance couldn’t be more pronounced. The universality to this reality is one that I think supports a critical humanistic vision, a perspective that, from an objective standpoint, also celebrates the incredible genetic diversity among local populations. It gives us fundamental perspective about the arbitrary nature of geographic boarders, racist attitudes, tribalism, and the many needless wars and suffering that have been waged and inflicted throughout human history on the basis of such arbitrary identifications.

In other words, while there is this incredible universality to human beings, and the similarities among people is something to be celebrated, there is so much to also celebrate about our differences – what we can call the particular as it emerges from the general. So, for example, people with ASD and the different perspectives we may offer as individuals, which, currently, is described under the heading of neurodiversity. Or, for example, the different perspective we may all offer, given our geographies and our own psychological histories. Or the diversity in our skin colours and other phenotypic differences that have come about rapidly in our evolutionary history. One of the great things about humanity is owed to the fact that as human beings we come in different shapes and sizes, we have different facial characteristics, varying eye colour, different finger prints, and different skin colours. For me, it gives perspective on how irrational our social history has also been – the needless suffering that people have faced and continue to face as a result of grim prejudice. Recently, for example, the daily prejudice black people continue face has been a renewed subject of discussion in the media. I think also of people with autism or other disabilities.

When I think of modern science, like in my area of fundamental physics, I think of the conferences I’ve attended, and the wonderful diversity of perspectives that combine. Modern science can be a fantastic representative of a more rational world, where people from many different geographic regions and backgrounds work together to solve difficult problems and to contribute to the scientific body of knowledge.

7. The IOP is committed to encouraging participation in physics among people after the age of 16 – especially those from under-represented backgrounds. How do you think we can better support others from under-represented groups who are considering studying physics? Is there anything you want to do as an ambassador?

From the little I have shared about myself, it is obvious that I think education is important. Life-long learning, for me, is a process whose end is defined only by one’s mortality. It doesn’t matter if you’re 16, 25, 55, or 80 years of age, one can always decide to take up an interest in physics or whatever else. In fact, I would encourage anyone interested in studying science to take up physics, even if they don’t plan to pursue it as a career; because regardless of what area you find interest in, physics can offer an important perspective in life. But to anyone from an under-represented background considering studying physics, or who has a passion for studying physics, I would say keep trying, and ask for support. If you are facing challenges and barriers in life, think about who might be best placed to support you through these and contact them to ask for help. This might be a teacher at school, your local council or social services department, your GP or another healthcare professional, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, charities and support groups set up for people like you, family or friends, or the university you would like to attend. There is support out there, and it can take time to find the right support and to work through challenges, so being patient with yourself and others can help. There will be better days and harder days, so take one day at a time. Try to learn from setbacks and if things don’t quite go to plan, try to rest, regroup, and get back up the next day and try again. This is after all what a scientist often has to do!

As someone from an underrepresented background, it can sometimes be hard to feel confident that you could go to university, or be a scientist, if you don’t see or hear about people who are similar to you doing the same thing successfully. Sometimes it can feel isolating, wondering whether others have experienced the challenges that you have in pursuing their interests and goals in science, and if so, how they might have overcome these, or even whether it is possible to overcome such challenges at all. Sometimes it can be difficult to find easy answers to questions about whether a particular environment (e.g. a university or workplace) will be welcoming and accessible to someone like you. In this respect, I think organisations like IOP can help by working with universities to make them more welcoming, accessible and supportive environments for people from underrepresented backgrounds. IOP can also work to increase the visibility of people from underrepresented backgrounds who are studying and working in Physics. This could include such individuals sharing both their successes (to show that success is possible!) and the challenges they have faced, including how they have worked through these challenges. These real-life examples can be much more helpful to people who may be facing challenges and barriers of their own in pursuing physics at university or as a career, than a rose-tinted success story that leaves out the challenges and bumps along the way.

As an ambassador this is something that I would like to contribute to, and I hope that by sharing my story, perhaps it might encourage others who have faced similar challenges to keep trying and working towards their goals.

8. What would you say to someone thinking about applying to the fund? (Would you encourage them to apply? If so, why? What advice would you offer?)

I would encourage anyone to apply. Unfortunately, I am not one to give advice about applications and things, because I tend to struggle a lot with these procedures. What I can say is make sure your application meets all of the criteria, and, if your application is not successful, don’t be discouraged. Take it as a learning experience – ask for advice about any areas in which you can improve your application for next time, and try again either with another funder and/or with the Bell Burnell fund at the next application round.

9. What message do you have for Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell – and other supporters who have made this funding possible?

I suppose I would just like to thank Prof. Dame Burnell and the others involved in the scholarship. It means a huge amount to me to be able to pursue my PhD, and I hope that my research in the next few years helps to repay the support and belief in me, and that, moving forward, I can be a good ambassador and help contribute a meaningful voice in the British scientific community.