It has now been one year since the worst day of my life (or, according to wordpress, more than a year, on account of how it appears to be based upon Greenwich Mean Time). Perhaps now is a good time to blog about it?
Let us begin with some background: simply put, shortly after enlisting in Grad School, I started to question whether or not I was doing the right thing with my life. Theoretical physics is a brutally difficult field of study, in which tenured positions are few and far between. So few and far between, in fact, that in undergraduate university, one of my professors suggested that I should get my PhD in astrophysics, get tenure as an astrophysicist (which is, apparently, an easier thing to accomplish) and then, once in the door, switch to Theory and do what actually interested me instead. Moreover, as I researched ever more deeply into the holographic principle, I began to come, inexorably, to the unfortunate conclusion that this was a subject so far removed from the actual real world that it may not be worthwhile pursuing it at all. And, to top it all off, my supervisor and I did not initially get along all that well (mainly owing, I suspect, to cultural differences and a mutual discomfort with meeting new people).
All of these factors combined to convince me that what I really ought to be doing was getting a degree in astrophysics.
Now, there were a few problems with this: first of all, I had no formal training in astrophysics. No matter- I knew General Relativity, and most of astronomy, mathematically-speaking, just consists of fairly mundane applications of gravity. So I would be able to learn on the go; nothing to worry about.
The second problem was that it didn’t really interest me all that much. That’s not to say that I didn’t find astronomy interesting, mind you; just that, bizarrely, all of the parts that I found most interesting were the parts that had the least to do with theory. I will always love planets, for example, but they’re just so Newtonian! If I want to get my foot in the door by eventually becoming a gravity theorist, I would need, at the very least, to be dealing with a field based on Einsteinian gravity, if not whatever may lie beyond that. So I looked around and found that the only subject being researched at our university which I could bring myself to care about at all was computer-modeling of galaxy formation. How much did I care?…Meh. Enough to get paid to research it, I guessed. At least I wouldn’t have to be looking for gravitational lensing effects from dark matter halos. So again, nothing to worry about.
So, having assured myself that nothing would be the matter, I researched the faculty at our university to find an ideal supervisor in this field. No problem at all! Here was a man who was conversant, not only in astronomy, but also (like me, as I flattered myself to think) on the subjects of history (he was a great admirer of Avicenna) and poetry. If anyone could possibly doubt his brilliance, they needed only look at his website, and their doubts would be cast aside! So I contacted him, we had a meeting (the first meeting, in fact, that I had left in months without feeling like an idiot) and he told me that he had an excellent project for me that would take maybe five months and then sent me on my way. So everything was going well; I went home for the break, ordered the textbook he recommended, registered in his course (after asking him what courses I should register-in, waiting several weeks for a reply, and then finally just ‘taking the initiative’). Everything was looking up.
And then, he revealed the way that the class was to be structured.
You see, when one signs-up for a course called “Structure Formation in the Universe,” one naturally assumes that one will be taught about…well…structure formation in the universe. But no such luck; you see it turned out that this was one of those courses in which we had to teach ourselves the material by means of mandatorily reading a hundred pages of the textbook and several scientific papers every week, and then sharing what we had learned with our peers by means of presentations. I convinced myself that it wasn’t an issue. Sure I sucked at making presentations, but it was an important skill; surely by practicing, I would learn to conquer my fear and, in any case, knowing as the professor must how unorthodox this format is for a science course, he would surely be lenient, right?
I vowed to redouble my efforts, hit the library, read the textbook; yes, I didn’t have the same background in astronomy as everyone else, but if there was anything I couldn’t learn on the fly he wouldn’t have let me take the course, would he have? I mean, I had asked him about it.
In practice this meant that I needed to spend virtually every daylight hour (this was January, might I remind you) sequestered away in the library, taking detailed notes from my textbook. It meant that I needed to work well into the night and often into the morning, fulfilling the requirements of my other courses, as well as my TA position (marking an advanced physics course for which I needed to make the answer keys myself). But I could handle it; of course I could. Just because I was all alone, overworked, in perpetual darkness, operating on 5 hours of sleep each night and studying something that bored me…it was just a little challenge, was all; sometimes life throws you curveballs. Like when you find out that you’re transgender, for example, five days before you need to present and it starts eating away at your psyche; that would be an example of a “curveball.”
Anyway: January 20, 2011. I was up until 3:30 in the morning the night before, trying to put the finishing touches on my presentation, all of the while knowing that I would probably have to do the exact same thing the following night in order to complete the quantum mechanics assignment I had been neglecting to pursue my astrophysical dream. Finally, I realized that there was no way I could complete a powerpoint presentation, as I had been hoping. But whatever: the course outline never specified that our presentations needed to be done on powerpoint, so why bother with the hassle? I fell onto my bed and slept uncomfortably for a handful of hours.
When I got up, I looked out my window to see that everything was a uniform shade of grey; it’s always grey here. I got out of bed, and started frantically practicing my presentation; reviewing all of my notes and diagrams. I suspect few people know just how difficult it is to care about the freeze-out times of quarks and gluons in the early universe when they consumed by thoughts that they were born into the wrong sex. Time was ticking down; the class was at 2:30 PM. It was scheduled such that I needed to miss the first hour of my class on symmetries in particle physics, but so be it.
After what seemed an eternity, it was, at last time for me to be on my way. Feeling the need to express my newly-realized femininity, I was wearing lady-pants as I set out, but as it turned out, there were some things that I had yet to learn about women’s clothing. Chiefly, I failed to realize that, in so far as women’s pants are concerned, pockets are purely decorative. You can use them to store, for example, keys. Maybe a cellphone if you’re lucky and the pocket opens at the right angle. That’s about it. They are entirely useless, however, for storing one’s wallet, particularly when one needs to ride her bicycle to work.
So, as you might imagine, I arrived at the university only to find, once I got there, that my wallet had disappeared from my pocket. This was a disaster; not only, potentially, from a financial standpoint (although it ended-up being cleared-up by the bank easily enough), but also in terms of my nerve. And also, because I was now unable to purchase any sort of caffeinated beverage. But I pulled myself together, and made my way up eleven flights of stairs (the elevator was being repaired) to the classroom. There I met my fellow students, who were friendly enough, and seemed, distressingly, much calmer about the whole thing than I did. This, I soon found out, was because they actually knew how to deliver presentations, having done it regularly during the academic careers, whereas I, on the other hand, did not.
At this point the professor came in. I have mentioned above that I thought that he was brilliant…and of course, he was. What was more, I quickly found out that he knew that he was brilliant, and wanted to make damn sure that everyone else knew that he was brilliant as well. To this end (or so I quickly discerned), he was less interested in teaching his students than he was in using them as props to showcase his own brilliance. He was, quite frankly, an arrogant, pompous, self-aggrandizing bully. The other students got it badly enough…but then it was my turn.
“I…didn’t do a powerpoint presentation,” I stammered as I climbed to the front of the class. I had noticed that everyone else had done one. “With your permission, I would like to proceed on the blackboard.”
The professor sighed theatrically and rolled his eyes. “…Very well. But for future reference, all presentations should be done using powerpoint.”
What followed was about half an hour of pure torture. It might not have been so bad if I could have been allowed to just grit my teeth and finish the presentation; perhaps he could have critiqued me at the end. But now; that’s not the kind of man he was. Rather, every time I tried to say anything, I was peppered with disparaging comments about my presentation style.
“You’re reading,” he would say. “Stop reading.” Or “Why aren’t you making eye-contact? You’ve got to make eye-contact.” Or “you were meant to have achieved mastery over the subject matter; I see that you do not have that.” The whole thing was like a prolonged nightmare that just wouldn’t end.
Finally, I found that I was no longer capable of speaking. I froze. I needed to get away from there, away from his taunting. I apologized to the class and left. Would that the Earth might have swallowed me then, but alas. I still needed to attend the second half of my symmetries lecture, visit the bank, and stay-up until four in the morning, trying to complete the quantum assignment (I never managed).
I remained in that class for six horrible weeks, refusing to acknowledge defeat. It was only when I was home for reading week that I acknowledged to my parents that I had hated every minute of the previous month and a half. If there is a lesson here, and I assume that there probably is, it is just this: know your limits.