Physicists: like Indians; Indians: like physicists.

(The title is supposed to be to the tune of ВЫХОД’s “Женщины как лошади“. And yes, I mean that Physicists ARE like Indians, not that they DO like Indians. That varies.)

Alright, “Zuuko” has thrown down the gauntlet, so I better respond. My first blog post here! I feel like a good way to start off is with gross generalizations about over a billion people. Don’t worry, though, it’ll be all about learning and science and equality, too. Awesome. It’s like Woody Allen sez in Annie Hall – “I’m a bigot – but for the left.”

So anyway, I had the good fortune to be driven around India for about a month and a half, and like all stereotypical Western douchebags on trips to India, I achieved enlightenment, albeit my enlightenment was of a very limited kind. Namely, I learnt that Indian people don’t know directions worth shit. Big deal, you say, no one else does, either. Fair enough, but Indian people don’t know directions on a whole different level. I’ll give you an example. We were trying to get into Haridwar before dark one evening, and stopped by the side of a road to ask a man sitting there which way to go. He immediately began talking rapidly and with great confidence, helpfully adding hand signals to his instructions: Forward, straight, a turn to the left. Then he began to draw circles with one finger around a point. Five or six  such circles, then, all the while continuing his explanation, both hands pointed downwards, then one touched his head in a “think about it” gesture, and finally he pointed with his thumb behind his back, and gave a contented sign of having finished. All I got was that getting to Haridwar wouldn’t be as easy as I’d hoped. I asked the driver what the man said – and the driver laughed it off and said the man clearly didn’t know the directions. To me, this looked like something from a Charlie Chaplin movie. But in India, this was normal. No one knows the directions. But no one would ever admit it.

There is something admirable to this. the Strugatsky Brothers have a fantastic story called “The Carnivorous Things of the Century” (Apparently called “The Final Circle of Paradise” in English. WTF, English people! W. T. F.) – where our hero, an investigator of sorts, as a kind of lark, tries to never let on in conversation if he doesn’t know what’s being talked about. I tried doing this for a while, and I must say in social situations it’s pretty fun. But obviously in science it’s horrible. No one likes to admit they don’t know things, but for most fields, either it never comes up (math!), there’s not actually anything that people have agreed upon (anthro!), everything is so specialised there’s no possible expectation of a general body of knowledge (bio!), or it’s all trivial details that you can look up in five seconds (history!). I feel, though (and I am not alone in this), that studying physics implies that you should generally be able to answer any question about anything. I mean, not anything important like relationships, money, sex or anything like that, but all that other stuff. How refrigerators work. Why the sky is blue. What transistors are. Whether CERN will destroy the world. You know. And to pretend to know when you don’t is (a) awful and (b) hard. And to admit you don’t makes you (a) a failure as a physicist and (b) feel really dumb. The best solution is to say something like “I don’t know, but here is a possible guess” and then think of the correct explanation on the spot. But, you know, sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t. And the temptation to act like a roadside Indian is great.

I’m thinking that if you don’t know that this is what’s happening, physicists seem way smarter than they really are. And that discourages people from doing physics. Now, okay, some people aren’t interested – that’s fair. But I’ve also talked to a bunch of people who said they actually really loved physics and wanted to do physics but just felt that they weren’t smart enough. Maybe this is the kind of shit people say to other people when making small talk – and yes, that’s certainly the case – but what if that was also how they really felt? Now, I would say that, sure, most people shouldn’t become professional physicists. But as it is now, physics is seriously intimidating. And I think that is squarely to its detriment. It’s not like med school where intimidation serves as some sort of check on insane demand. Instead, it makes physics be for people who either (a) have physicist role models in the family to disintimidate them or (b) are cocky. Could this be a part of why so few women go into physics? Obviously, it’s not the only reason, and probably not even a major one. But still. Physics is the least gender-balanced among major PhD program streams in the US. Ridiculous gender imbalance. Hey, another thing physicists and Indians have in common!

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