Diode

On crises, fears and the comforts and downfalls of absolute rights and absolute wrongs

Hi and thanks for subscribing to my newsletter! The breakdown: first a personal essay then some thoughts on my recent work, things I am reading, writing and listening to and finally some recipes and recipe recommendations. Feel free to skip to whatever interests you. Please do also hit reply at any time, for any purpose - these are odd times and I want to offer as much connection and support as I can. Find me on Twitter and Instagram too.

DIODE*

My husband and I got into an argument about Bob Woodward. Not the kind of argument where you speak as if a plum or a peach were stuck in your throat, but the kind where you gleefully, academically, accuse someone of being a Kantian or, at the other end of the spectrum, a moral relativist. The kind where you say, “this is something podcasts hosts may argue about” and carry the argument from the dinner table into the kitchen where one of you washes the dishes and the other puts away ones that are already dry. It’s the kind of argument that seems to not matter at all because you carry it out as an intellectual exercise instead of an emotional shouting match, and yet it really does.

Woodward, a journalist famous for his role in uncovering the Watergate scandal, knew that back in February the president withheld information about the coronavirus from the public. And he did not just withhold it, he lied about it too: he admitted to Woodward that he was purposefully downplaying the danger of the virus in press briefings. Woodward did not share these insights into the president’s thinking in real time, but rather only made them public in recent weeks, on the eve of his book being published and after COVID-19 has taken its toll on the nation. It may seem very cynical to claim that he is using these shocking conversations to get more publicity for something he is trying to sell, but it is certainly tempting to read the timeline that way. Some commentators and pundits defended Woodward’s choice by arguing in favor of extremely thorough fact-checking and respecting the writing and publishing process. Others have been quick to blame him for countless deaths they see as connected to the president’s lies and lack of response to the pandemic in its earliest days.

Taking a larger view, all the noise about Woodward may be an instance of many of us misplacing and misdirecting our fear and anger. Regardless of Woodward’s choices, it is the president that acted in a way that put us all in danger. Focusing on Woodward distracts us from where the power, and abuses of power, really lie. At the same time, debating Woodward’s actions highlights just how sharp and bright the lines of misconduct and bad decision making can seem in a time of overall crisis. This is where I got stuck with my husband – clearly Woodward did not do the best thing, but does that mean that what he did do was absolutely wrong? In a tense and fraught situation like our current moment, and there is no indication that bad things will stop happening anytime soon, the space between “not the best” and “absolutely wrong” seems to have shrunk. It seems to be on a path towards fully disappearing.

In so many ways, it is troublesome argue in favor of middle grounds, middle spaces and gray areas right now. Making a decision that may fall in a fraught gray area in some other context can be a matter of life and death in the context of a global pandemic. Straddling a political middle ground in an election year where it feels like all structures of order and decency have long crumbled and faded away seems less like ideological indecision and more like a hurtful apathy to others’ suffering. There is very little room for neutrality now. Doing the second best or maybe just calculatedly shooting for not the worst has become an unacceptably low standard. Moral laziness and intellectual inertia are a bad look set against the backdrop of what feels like a slow and never-ending slide towards a full-on apocalypse.

At the same time, black-and-white thinking and an us-vs-them mentality is often a foundation for oppressive organizations and it powers exactly the kind of hateful policy that many of us in the United States have felt creep into political discourse in recent years. A few years ago, I participated in an Access Network workshop designed to give us local organization leaders tools for discerning whether the hierarchies and norms we adapted have potential for becoming oppressive or exclusionary sometime down the line. This is heady stuff for organizations led by college and graduate students, but important work for anyone who may ever consider calling themselves an organizer of any sort. Part of our discussion was based on a list of characteristics of white supremacy culture sourced from Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun. The list includes “Either/Or Thinking” followed by “Only One Right Way” and “Perfectionism”. In the time before the pandemic, it was not too much of a stretch to argue that a lack of flexibility and an adherence to absolutism implied in all of these characteristics could truly be harmful and lead to pain and divisions within communities we were all trying to build.

Now, however, it feels like there are exceptions. It feels like it is increasingly more and more worthwhile to argue in favor of perfectionism and rigid, rigid rules. The conflict surrounding the wearing of masks is one such place. It is genuinely difficult to imagine flexibility being built into our pandemic-prevention rules if it means that even a single life will be put in any more danger than absolutely necessary. Simultaneously, there is an argument to be made about overly strict pandemic rules being a fertile ground for rule-breaking and new dangers that could have been prevented by a more flexible, harm reduction approach. Thinking of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, one that has been recorded in history in a way very much colored by us-vs-them thinking and that is still relevant in some communities but ignored by the broader public, a strict condemnation of some ways of acting does not lead to absolute overall safety. If nothing else, when everything seems forbidden, confusion, misinformation and mischief thrive. COVID-19 is in some ways more straightforward but providing people with enough information to be able to discern which risks are acceptable and could be considered a personal decision and which risks put whole communities in harm’s way and should not be tolerated is still crucial. There has to be some cheat-sheet for the risk calculus involved here or otherwise the next however many months of this pandemic life will only become more and more unbearable. They will only lead to more and more impulsive, lizard-brain-run bad decision making.

What underlies the shift to right-and-wrong absolutism in our present situation is a fear of uncertainty and a distrust of those who are unlike us. I have to be honest here and admit that in that Bob Woodward argument it was me who got called a Kantian and that it was me that wanted to say that what the famous journalist did was absolutely wrong rather than just “not quite right”. My, always more level-headed, partner was less likely to declare moral imperatives over the noise of the sink and my clattering with our cast iron pans. Election years, even in the absence of a pandemic, are always terrifying for me. As every new government seems to have a new take on immigration, electing lawmakers feels like it is extremely close to directly determining my future as an immigrant in this country. Being a queer woman on top of that definitely prevents me from feeling like laws don’t matter or imagining that what happens in the congress or the senate will never trickle down into my life. I have spent over a decade building myself, my career and a small family in this country from scratch. Since I have absolutely no say in how the life that I constructed in this way will be confined and shaped by laws, norms and regulations, any sort of an election season is a time of high uncertainty for me. And the more scared I get, the more perfectionism and purity start to matter to me. There is just a strong sense of safety in thinking that a purely right mindset is out there and can be achieved.

Echoing another conversation I often had as a student equity and inclusion advocate and an organizer, I have been speaking to more seasoned teachers than myself on how to make space for dissenting opinions in my classroom this fall. This may be naïve, but I do still at times believe that people can change their minds, and with young people I want, or maybe need, to believe this with even more conviction. One thing we lose when we let fear sort us on one or other side of a strict “right” and a strict “wrong” is a space to change and grow. Growth, in my mind, is integral to education and as educators we need to be looking for it much more than anything else. To let students, grow, we cannot make them feel like they are not allowed to feel out the edges of what is provocative. We should also not give them an incentive to double-down on an opinion just based on our negative reaction. Part of adolescence is wading through the gray area that those of us who are older, who objectively wield power over some of the younger people in our lives, tend to scoff at without realizing we could be acting in ways that are exclusionary. I remember my political views being met with condescension when I was a teenager and I still often feel like older relatives make assumptions about my lived experience in ways that lead them to think that I have nothing to stand on when I argue on point or another. It feels awful to be in such conversations. When I think back on my younger self, I see so many flawed and borderline hateful opinions that I have dropped and transformed. I am critical of that past self, but I still have empathy for the pain and indignity she felt when there was no space made for her between absolute right and absolute wrong.

Living with older family members who disagree with me on so many issues has been an exercise in finding that space too. It has been a hard one. How can someone who I know loves me support a political regime that seems to hate me? The mental gymnastics required to process these relationships are exhausting. Briefly having in-person co-workers of my age and being able to share lunch breaks with colleagues who closer aligned with my beliefs felt remarkably refreshing. I don’t think I’ve ever worked alongside so many openly queer people and while the science department I joined is quite male-dominated the only-woman-in-the-room feeling did not hit me as hard as it at times had in college and graduate school. After a day or two, getting back to my in-law’s basement at the end of each workday felt like a slightly different world. I had to remind myself that there is a danger into leaning to deeply into the young, progressive bubble that was suddenly being offered to me. The same way fear and uncertainty give us incentive to declare an absolutely evil “them” it also makes it likely that we will become complacent in the blind comfort of a potential “us”.

I started writing this letter before Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died and once I learned of her death a brief spiral of sadness and rage at both elected officials vowing to replace her before the election and the universe that has taken her had me thinking that maybe I should abandon this line of reasoning altogether. The apocalyptic scenario here is so clear – a biased court in a year when the kind of election in which that court ends up deciding the rules and the winners can so easily happen – that arguing for nuance, for flexibility in where we draw ideological lines, and a critical approach to purity seemed absolutely useless. Why make spaces where you could meet someone that leans away from your “side” if the whole thing is just becoming more and more unfair, some may even say rigged? But despairing does not remedy this is any way. Nor does deciding that everyone who disagrees with you is an absolute villain. While social media offered some choice doom-scrolling in the wake of Bader Ginsburg’s passing, slowly but surely, I saw talk of action and hope in my feeds as well. Hope needs to be practiced and it needs to be exercised like a muscle. Hope needs to lead to action and that action needs to garner even more hope until we build feedback loops for making the world better. And there is no hope for such betterment in spaces where tremendously bright and rigid lines are drawn between right and wrong, where there is not space for a hopeful action to nudge someone who is not quite right towards being more so.

Best,

Karmela

*A diode is a simple electronic device that only conducts current in one direction. It is one of the oldest semiconducting devices and relies on asymmetric electrical conduction: low resistance in one direction and high in the other. Diodes are used to convert alternating current (AC) which includes current components in more than one direction to direct current (DC) where there is only one current component that does not stray away from a single direction.

Ultracold now includes a paid subscriber option. All future letters will remain free, but if you want to offer small financial support for the writing that happens in this space, you can click the button below. To support me otherwise, please consider sharing this letter on social media.

ABOUT ME LATELY

LEARNING: After a week and a half of meeting other teachers, rummaging through heavy hard-covered calculus books and learning which closet in my new school houses constant velocity cars and which is for whiteboards and catapult building supplies instead, I got to spend three days co-teaching an interdisciplinary workshop over Zoom with some of my students. Instead of jumping straight back into coursework after months of school breaks and school delays, we led mixed grade groups of students in “writing and thinking” exercises that covered everything from discussions of college education in prisons to recreating a fine art masterpiece with household items. It was fairly intense, and I definitely forgot just how exhausting Zoom interactions can be. At the same time, I felt encouraged by how many students actively participated and how much camaraderie there was between teachers tasked with teaching difficult material, outside of our disciplines for many, during all the re-opening panic. Halfway through the second day of the workshop, one of the students told us that they read in the New York Times that in-person instruction will be pushed back another two weeks. We hadn’t heard that through official channels yet and our mood dampened in real time. The silver lining again was that students still stuck with the plan and completed the workshop. I was simultaneously jealous of this being an introduction to high school for some of them and really mournful of every extra moment they have to stay away from their friends and their school community. It was a good experience overall and a nice ego boost in the face of my fear of teaching students so much younger than college kids I’ve been teaching for the past seven or eight years. I am writing this the night before my, now remote, conceptual 9th grade physics class kicks off and I suspect that that will be the real learning experience when it comes to my job this fall.

On the writing front, I do have a few things in the works, but nothing I can quite shout out yet. Working with some editors for the second or third time has certainly made me very aware of how much more I know about science writing now than I did a few months ago. However, I’m mostly taking this awareness as a reminder of how much more I have to learn in the future. An exciting prospect for the coming months when so many other things might end up going wrong for me professionally.

LISTENING: One of the workshops I co-taught this past week featured readings from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. I have written about Rankine before and her interviews on On Being and Longform are an interesting and compelling listen.

A lot more King Princess who I think I am now more than a little in love with. Probably because she wore three-stripe Adidas to her Tiny Desk concert. Or the way she calls classic rock stars femme in this Fender video.

This Yugoslavian rockabilly-ish situation with the band called Davoli (the devils). Cheesy but charming.

READING: Emily Sundberg in her newsletter Feed Me writing about the fires in California, climate change and being an ethical consumer, and the role of social media in that whole mess. This paragraph resonated with me

‘I’m kind of upset by how many times I’ve been told “Recycling and reusable straws and composting and cutting those things in-between Coke cans will save the world!” but everyone left out the part that, “We’re developing land that shouldn’t be developed, and running power lines where we shouldn’t be running them, and not listening to native people about how fires should/shouldn’t be controlled, and electing people who don’t believe in global warming, and Americans need to have a serious conversation with ourselves about consumption.”’

Stacy-Marie Ishmael writing about strings we attach to our presumably good deeds in The Main Event. She writes

“I find myself wondering what to do, in the face of the wildfires and the hatred and the deaths and the steady, steady diminution of whose lives matter. I am trying to stand for something. To take responsibility. To show up. To make eye contact. To give money to the people who have been comforting the afflicted, rebuilding the broken infrastructure, advocating for the vulnerable.

Can we do this without attaching conditions? Can we do this without expecting displays of gratitude? Can you pause to reflect before you ask for a refund because the Black-owned bookstore that you’d never thought to buy before from told you all the books about racism were on backorder and by the way USPS shipping is additionally delayed.”

This infographic on using language inclusive of non-binary people.

My friend Adam’s brand-new newsletter in which he gave me a sweet, sweet shout-out. My friend Lauren’s newsletter which has always been great.

About five pages of Gravity’s Rainbow. This is, as I am learning, not a book you can casually reach for when very tired after a long day.

WATCHING: I’ve fallen behind on chronicling all the movies we have been watching, but since I started working my schedule moved pretty early into the morning which freed our evenings a bit and plunged us into more movie time than we were averaging before. Inspired by a Hitchcock-themed episode of The Big Picture podcast we watched North by Northwest then ran with the theme of classic crime and got around Orson Welles’ The Third Man as well. After that, we reverted to our penchant for the weird and somewhat grotesque and spend one evening with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice and another with David Cronneberg’s Videodrome. None of these really disappointed and though all were slightly disorienting in different ways, they kept my attention and gave me something to think about.

North by Northwest probably surprised me the most because it is a bit of a mess. It’s plot is sort of nonsensical, yet the film is aesthetically very on point and studded with such memorable performances. The Third Man was near-perfect, and every beat of it seemed both well calibrated and very necessary. Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie based on the Pynchon novel of the same name was definitely a trip but didn’t seem to take itself one hundred percent seriously which made it easier to see some if it as satire and some of it as an absurdist comedy. I couldn’t help thinking that this is what Too Old To Die Young could have been had Nicolas Winding Refn not been so committed to slow and belabored, utter seriousness. I think I am also liking Paul Thomas Anderson more and more with every movie of his we decide to watch. Finally, Videodrome was probably the film on this list that was most like what I expected it to be. The mix of body horror, sex and tech commentary was pretty much what I signed up for and though I am not sure I can vouch for the soundness of its plot, it is not hard to see how it became a cult classic in some circles. It is remarkably prescient about how we live our lives online and swapping the Internet for TV in its story would work almost terrifyingly too well.

On the TV front we finished Halt and Catch Fire and I don’t really have much more to say about it than I have in previous weeks. It ended rather abruptly, abandoning a number of half-baked storylines, and not allowing most of its characters to have anything even near a happy ending. I know that not every show has to be a feel-good show, but I think it’s equally valid to claim that not every plot twist should be rooted in deciding to make a character miserable. It’s a shame that unhappiness is mostly what I’ll remember about Halt and Catch Fire because the first two season of this series were actually quite compelling and way less emotionally tiresome.

Our next somewhat disappointing show of choice has been the second season of Umbrella Academy on Netflix. This is a show I had gripes with in its original run and I wasn’t actually all that excited to revisit it. I continue to be mildly fascinated with it, however, because it always makes me think about the limitations of adapting comic books and graphic novels to TV. There are scenes in Umbrella Academy that I can see working wonderfully as comic book pages, and visual jokes and ticks that wouldn’t bother me in that medium at all, but somehow just fall so flat in the context of a live action series. After watching successes in this arena such as Legion and HBO’s Watchmen, I guess I am just slightly problematically curious about where failures happen and why.

EATING: A cauliflower and soy curl piccata loosely based on this recipe alongside a simple spinach and tomato salad lightly dressed with red wine vinegar and olive oil. Ramen noodles with sauteed asparagus, sweet corn and chili oil paired with cold silken tofu drenched in soy sauce, maple syrup, sesame seeds and dried chilis, and some enoki mushrooms braised in soy sauce and mirin (this recipe was my inspiration and I have made it very successfully before but did not want to turn on the oven on this particular day). Spaghetti and mushrooms in a creamy sunflower seed powered sauce. Early morning carrot ginger protein smoothies. More focaccia based on my favorite recipe, one topped with thinly sliced onions and lemons and one with olives, basil and vegan parmesan. Onigiri based on Diana Yen’s recipe for Basically.

Schur's Lemma

On buying shoes, performing identities and being uncomfortable

Hi and thanks for subscribing to my newsletter! The breakdown: first a personal essay then some thoughts on my recent work, things I am reading, writing and listening to and finally some recipes and recipe recommendations. Feel free to skip to whatever interests you. Please do also hit reply at any time, for any purpose - these are odd times and I want to offer as much connection and support as I can. Find me on Twitter and Instagram too.

There is one swear word at the very end of the essay portion of this letter.

SCHUR’S LEMMA*

In this past week I spent a lot of time thinking about buying shoes for work.

I have a very simple relationship to shoes. I buy a pair, I wear them out, I buy the exact same pair again. When I am really broke, I get whatever color is on sale, but my style, brand and model choices don’t really change. I wear Doc Martens and Converse All Stars because I started wearing them as a teenager. Back then, I cared more about using clothes as a signal of my, very cliché, interpretation of subcultural allegiances. I run in Nikes because I ran in Nikes when I was a track team captain, around the same time. I was too broke to buy more professional track shoes. I bought heels to graduate high school in and re-wore them for our wedding. I bought heels to graduate college in and re-wore them for every engagement party or wedding we have been invited to since. I briefly flirted with a pair of creepers in college and a pair of semi-professional loafers in graduate school, but never committed to more than one pair of each.

In recent years, I have become less preoccupied with always being perfectly put together, no longer being embarrassed by the idea that someone may see me in sweatpants at the grocery store or make-up-less at the farmer’s market. However, I still think of dressing myself as something like billboard assembly. In my mind, everything I wear combines to send a message, to brand me and contextualize me. I have always been taken by how here in New York City there are men and women that do actually look like they stepped off of a fashion advice website. For years I thought that all the listicles of trends and themes deemed worthy of spending your money on in this particular season or that were more or less just a content-churning scheme that also brought in advertising dollars. Getting out of small-town Illinois would then often remind me that in different places you signal status differently. In different places you chose to brand yourself as being parts of different groups. You chose your bubble then plaster its markers all over yourself. Those in the know can decipher it, even when the name of the game is minimalism or feigned simplicity.

Teaching at a large, high-ranking state school brought this to my attention constantly as well. With a student body split between in-state students from the suburbs and international students the university really made its profits off of, popularity of certain clothing items or brands seemed to run along a few parallel tracks. After teaching any large general education course, you could guess what pocket of the undergraduate population a student was trying to fit in with, the most obvious examples being gear overflowing with brand-name logos or Greek life insignia. I would catch myself looking at a pair of slippers or an oversized sweatshirt a student had thrown on for an early morning problem solving session and thinking that I knew who they must be based on that choice. I’d have to correct myself and give my underslept mind a stern reminder that people are more complicated than what they advertise with their body. Regardless, the gut reaction, the fast judgement we have of each other often relies on visuals first.

Often, queer people have a heightened understanding of how misleading this construction of who a person is from what they look like can be. To me, queerness has always been about complicating it, maybe even playing games with it. In recent years, we have started talking about gender in more complex ways, acknowledging that gendering someone based on their physical characteristics can sometimes fail, and sometimes cause harm. Certainly, this conversation is more prominent in academic bubbles and it still has a long way to go. We are often reminded of its importance by elected officials that do not hold back on legislating if not gender itself but then everything related to the expression of it. There is an incongruence, however, between the pushback to the idea of gender being a construct and the love many people have for over-the-top performers in showbusiness and the arts who are most certainly drawing eyeballs and emotional investment by constructing their identities then playing them up. This is crucial for success in the public eye, even now when social media has brought celebrities seemingly much closer to us than they were in the past. In many ways, they just start performing themselves once they are constantly accessible to their fans. It is probably not controversial to claim that queer people always led the charge on this front, always modeled what it means to have a persona, what it means to perform, what it means to subvert expectations conveyed by visuals only. This is not surprising given how many have historically had to perform being someone who they are not just to be safe.

***

Buying shoes for work then, feels like planning a new performance, a construction of someone new I might have to be day-to-day. It makes me think of doing drag: being able to becomes someone very different and very stylized, but also someone that you have to truly work to put on. If a student looks at my work shoes, what will they think of me? What about a colleague I hadn’t met before? Or just another person on the subway platform, maybe also going to work, maybe returning from the kind of long, long night that I have not had in such a long time? And will any of the people they see have anything to do with me once I kick them off?

It seems silly, but in this odd time when we leave our home so infrequently and interact with strangers so sparsely, I am sharply aware of the power distribution in any of those situations. An older colleague judging me, a new hire, harshly may end up being a problem for me. A student feeling intimidated by my being too formal may end up being a very different problem. Whatever signal I chose to send with my appearance should not lay ground for an erection of barriers. And because I have no idea where the line between unprofessional and accessible actually lies, I start work in less than a week but have not bought shoes yet.

When I think of a woman in professional shoes, inevitably I picture her in a pair of sensible heels. And wearing heels has always felt like an unscalable summit on the imposing and intimidating mountain range that is traditional femininity. I have always cycled between something like tomboyishness and some comic-book-like version of femininity (my proclivity for winged eyeliner and a strong eyebrow being the most permanent side effect), but the pandemic has given me fewer excuses to perform the latter and more chances to just lounge around in workout clothes or t-shirts only slightly different from those belonging to my husband. A few weeks ago, when I had a day to myself and ventured deeper into the city for the sake of a good vegan sandwich, I picked through a variety of outfits I thought I’d take for a spin this summer – skirts, dresses, crop tops and one-pieces that signal confidence and boldness – then settled on a pair of leggings and a sports bra I’d usually wear to run, only slightly dressed up. It was the only thing that felt right on my body.

I have lost the daily ritual of the two-step program of putting on make-up and having a strong cup of Turkish coffee to get ready to leave the house and be a-person-at-work. Now there is also no set time for me to go to the gym and take that work drag off in favor of something simpler and more visceral. I do put on make-up for virtual meetings, but it does not feel routine anymore. It feels like a chore regardless of how much I love my overlined face. The thing that drag performers always talk about is not just being able to take it all off after the show is over, but also how putting it all on can serve as a catalyst for channeling some inner self that usually does not get much outwardly representation. The put-together-woman that used to live inside of me seems to be deeply asleep, if she is there at all. And so, she can’t help me pick a pair of shoes.

***

My mom teaches high school too. When I was young, she would sometimes take me to school with her. I’d watch her English students discuss Shakespeare or practice adding ‘s’ to the end of verbs in third person singular. I’d watch her too. She always wore makeup to work and, at least in my memory, in early years lots of skirts and shoes with heels. Eventually she started wearing jeans and flats, sometimes to disapproval of her older colleagues. My grandmother would comment on it as well; she is part of a generation that feels that being a teacher means being formal, stiff and put together.

Of course, traditional notions, and heteronormative notions, of femininity are coded into that. Jeans can be sexy, but they are not a hallmark of respectful womanhood. People like my grandma are acutely aware of that distinction though they may not always be able to verbalize it. Accordingly, the mother-in-law I share a household with now approved of my buying two pairs of slacks in preparation for the beginning of the school year. There’s irony to this: in my mind buying pants meant doubling-down on my flirting with androgyny and giving up on trying to do what my mom had done so well for years.

Another thing I remember from my childhood is all this talk about “real women” who get their nails done, who get regular haircuts and don’t have to dye their hair at home, who wear perfume and don’t buy dresses on sale. When I was young, these statements were certainly more about socioeconomic class than they were about gender. It is probably still true that a traditional performance of gender is a privilege you have to, at least partly, buy. Being poor and feminine is always seen through a very different lens than femininity that comes with the backing of recognizable labels and the polish afforded by money and someone else’s labor. It made me self-conscious to realize this as a teenager, and even more so once I moved to the United States and started meeting women that actually had the means to buy all the realness they wanted. However, for the first time in a very long time, I could be few paychecks away from being able to afford to be the “real woman” of the casual comments of my childhood. But I’d have to prove it to myself that that is what I really want first.

***

A day before I started physically going to work my husband and I went shopping. Inadvertently fully denying our adulthood as real-people-with-real-jobs, we got a ride to the mall from his mom and slinked into a Macy’s through a back door that was somehow judged to be the most pandemic-proof entryway into the store. I bought a pair of blocky, black kitten heels with a pointed toe. Probably a pretty common first serious job shoe for many, and with a sticker price that was reasonable even before we cashed in some seasonal discounts.

The next day, I woke up early, made it through a fairly long commute in as good of a mood as this time allows for, and had a decent first day. I walked around a new-to-me building where my new office is and kept meeting new people. I filled out many forms. I politely and quietly encouraged myself to speak up and participate in meetings. It all went surprisingly well. Except for one thing: all the other teachers were comfortably running around in sneakers and my feet were fucking killing me.

Best,

Karmela

*Schur’s Lemma is an important statement in mathematical theory of group representations. It is essential for a couple of proofs that are at the foundation of representation theory of finite groups. Here, groups are objects made up some elements (think numbers) and rules for some operation (think addition or multiplication). Their representations are maps, they take each group element and translate it into a function. Schur’s lemma expresses a rule for how different representations of a single group relate to each other when they have certain properties.

Ultracold now includes a paid subscriber option. All future letters will remain free, but if you want to offer small financial support for the writing that happens in this space, you can click the button below. To support me otherwise, please consider sharing this letter on social media.

ABOUT ME LATELY

WRITING: I had a short news item about a new theoretical study for controlling light through interactions with ultracold atoms run in the New Scientist. This is a really cool study, showing off the potential of ultracold atoms as a finely tunable tool and making unexpected connections to 17th century ideas about waves. My only regret is that I wasn’t commissioned to write a longer piece about it!

LEARNING: In the last week before starting work, I slacked off  a bit more than usual. We ended up spending a day at the beach twice in a row, eating take-out for lunch on both days and I skipped long runs in favor of long but leisurely walks and brisk shuffling from one iteration of public transit to another. I learned two things. I have routines because they keep me grounded. At the same time, my reliance on those routines is at times too inflexible to actually be useful. Which is to say that a day and a half into my slacking off, instead of feeling more rested and more joyous I was feeling cranky and unsettled. Seeing friends at the beach bought me some good-times-outside-of-my-head, but when left to my own thoughts I was reminded of how much the issues of maintaining my mental health requires continuous, consistent learning.

And then there is learning to be a new employee, to be the least experienced employee and probably visibly the youngest employee. Luckily, everyone at my new school has been really friendly and supportive. If we were still in the habit of shaking hands, I would have shaken so, so many that were, at this time, metaphorically extended my way. Everything could, of course, go haywire at any time given that we are operating under heavy pandemic uncertainty, but learning how to not just teach, but also be in a workplace again feels more reasonable than just panicking.

LISTENING: Refrain by Boris and Z. O. A. and Boris’ LOVE & EVOL. I liked the first but did not love it. It had just a touch more psychedelia and softness than I think Boris’ more drone-y, noise-y sound really needed. The latter was more my speed though the band took some detours and chances here as well. Here, however, they went in the other direction, throwing in more static and grating, scratchy texture to their music. I enjoy that sort of thing more broadly so it’s not much of a surprised that it worked for me here too.

A lot more Orville Peck. I’m still not sure he is actually any good, but he has style and bravado and I have a minor soft spot for cowboy-adjacent anything.

Cheap Queen by King Princess which is such a smooth, relaxed and comfy record that still manages to pack in some punches and a bit of edge. It reminds me of my past Lucy Dacus phase, but with a heavier implication of dancing, boozy summer house parties and overt queerness. I’ll probably be giving this one a lot more spins on the train or very early walks to work.

READING: This poem by Jean Valentine and this one by David Berman.

This Vox article by Terry Nguyen about explainer slideshows on Instagram. Nguyen explores how they walk the line between subverting an algorithm that would usually not put revolutionary messages on top of your feed and turning activism into just another quick consumable with little fact-checking, little staying power, but lots of aesthetic value.

About thirty pages of Gravity’s Rainbow.

WATCHING: We finished watching Too Old To Die Young and are making our way through the last few episodes of Halt and Catch Fire.

The end of Too Old To Die Young did nothing to convince me that this show was anything more than a major indulgence, at times probably one that is pretty oblivious to what things look like in the real world, by Nicolas Winding Refn. The amount of violence, of gore, of unnecessarily perverted sex, it all just kept escalating at a rate that made it feel like a cake with too much icing and too many sprinkles on top of a purely tasteless sponge. The finale answered no questions, resolved no plot lines and mostly gave us a music video stitched to softcore porn stitched to some more slaughter. Maybe had the whole series been cut down to a two-hour film there could have been some meaning coaxed out of it, but after this sort of a long and slow watching experience, it just didn’t land as anything other than exploitative in an aesthetically intense way.

I am getting somewhat frustrated with Halt and Catch Fire too and wondering whether it really needed so many episodes and seasons. Same old conflicts between same old characters keep getting recycled to keep the story going and their misery is not always pleasant to take in even when presented through, in theory interesting, talk of the development of the early Internet.

EATING: Homemade mushroom, onion and soy chunk pierogis and pickled green tomatoes. My folding is as wonky as it’s been in all my other dumpling endeavors, but I continue to be pleased with myself for being able to make dough from scratch. I very loosely based it all on this recipe.

Arepas stuffed with jalapenos, black beans, plantains and avocado on Rockaway beach. A really amazing beach food discovery. Pasta salad with marinated tofu ‘feta’ on another beach day, courtesy of my husband’s thinking ahead.

Minor meal prep for my first week of out-of-the-house work: maple miso roasted brussels sprouts, potatoes and beets roasted with olive oil, balsamic and rosemary, Japanese sweet potatoes roasted with coconut oil and red chili flakes, “blank slate” baked tofu that we later turned into a sticky stir-fry with broccoli stems, scallions and sesame seeds, a big pile of jasmine rice, marinated chickpeas, and a repeat of these really simple but remarkably flavorful lentils. And a whole lot of ajvar and hummus sandwiches with sliced cucumbers and piles of lettuce, all on a very good, very heavy, very dense rye bread from one of the Russian groceries in our neighborhood.

Correction: Residue Theorem

A previous version of the August 30th Ultracold newsletter titled “Residue Theorem” incorrectly referenced the murder of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Blake was in fact shot but did not die and is currently hospitalized for his injuries. He is paralyzed from the waist down. The letter available through Substack has been updated to reflect this.

I want to offer sincere apologies for misstating the facts here - in proofreading the letter I had overlooked writing ‘murder’ instead of ‘shooting’ which certainly reveals my own pessimism and grim expectations. I recognize that this is a troublesome mistake and one that is disrespectful to Mr Blake and his family. I will be more careful in the future.

Sorry,

Karmela

Residue Theorem

On repetition and attaching strings to your joy

Hi and thanks for subscribing to my newsletter! The breakdown: first a personal essay then some thoughts on my recent work, things I am reading, writing and listening to and finally some recipes and recipe recommendations. Feel free to skip to whatever interests you. Please do also hit reply at any time, for any purpose - these are odd times and I want to offer as much connection and support as I can. Find me on Twitter and Instagram too.

If you can please consider supporting the Milwaukee Freedom Fund as they continue to assist protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin by making a donation here.

RESIDUE THEOREM*

When I started writing these letters a few years ago, I has a strict schedule. I had a newsletter writing night and a newsletter sending day. They meshed nicely with my work nights, gym nights, farmers market mornings, seminar afternoons and so on. Now that schedules are both essential and completely meaningless, I am writing in a looser way, in-between dealing with leftover research obligations, freelance writing assignment and ever intimidating course design. I keep a document where I make note of things I have read or listened to that might be worth mentioning in my next letter and I try to put down mostly scattered thoughts that show promise for growing into a future essay. When the panic of counting days elapsed since my last letter creeps in, I consult that document and try my best. The scattered thought portion of it for this week stayed mostly blank.

It’s been another chaotic, saddening, cruel week in the United States, painfully marked by the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. More lives were lost, more lies were told, we were all yelled at through screens and many were yelled at on the streets. Fires burned, storms hit, schools threatened to re-open and many threats of violence came true. We have seen all of this before, over and over again, so often in the past year, but also in past years that now establish an awful pattern. I can’t decide whether it is more devastating to be numb to sights, sounds and reporting on it all or to be fully disheartened, shattered and hopeless every time those news break through. The pandemic has been something of a crash course in dealing with opposing feelings for me, and I guess this week was in no way different. Can you be both numb and heartbroken? Of course you can, this is 2020.

Among the terribleness of this week, I managed to have one of the best days of the year so far, finally making it to the beach with my partner and some friends. We walked on the sand with our shoes off and watched a friend’s toddler discover his tremendous strength over it when grains spilled from his small fists with any application of pressure. We had to chase a colorful beach umbrella that mysteriously came with no anchor and quickly got overtaken by the wind, rolling away from me like a lopsided circular rainbow. We ran into the water and splashed at each other and let the waves carry us away from the shore. We drank sandy margaritas from a thermos and ate a slightly unripe pineapple we tried to let soften with lemon juice and only made it more sour, but no one cared. We talked to friends about how nice this all was much more than we talked to them about how precarious everything else is. We took pictures of each other as if we had gone to another planet and not just on a ten-minute car ride away from our home.

Photo: Rockaway beach earlier this week

I don’t think I knew that I needed a beach day so badly. Getting dressed in our basement room and catching sight of my terrible running gear tan-lines and the body that to me always looks at least slightly misshapen did make me anxious. But sometimes things do go right, and you do get over whatever is holding you back and the sun, the salt and the sand make you feel more alive, more embodied, more light. Later, with matching salt-fluffed hair and suspiciously reddened skin, we took ourselves out to dinner, to an Italian restaurant staffed and frequented by mainly Russian-speaking folks, next door to a Greek restaurant that loudly plays polka music, and laughed over Aperol spritzers when a storm hit and we all got a little wet because, of course, we are eating outside. We remembered another trip when we got rained on over falafel and another when we first figured out what those red drinks actually are. In remembering, and in soaking it all in, I briefly forgot everything else that was weighing me down.

There is not such thing as joy that comes without any strings attached. All of the conflicting feelings I have felt this year, all of the tensions underlying the unstable equilibrium I have found myself in, have made the connection between feeling temporarily good and more generally frightened potent for me. Being outraged by the government, but incredibly privileged to have a job and a place to stay. Being mad at biased family members, but grateful for their day-to-day, very concrete support. Being boxed-in, muted, stifled by quarantine, but also finally given the chance to spend every moment with someone you love to the point of a craving. It is not so much that the anger, the frustration and the sadness should corrode the joys and silver linings that do come our way, as much as we need to re-frame them as something to fight for, something worth holding on to as a glimpse of a better future.

In part, I struggled to put something down on paper this week because it seems like I have already tried to muddle my way through so much of it before. Even this feeling of time being stuck, of loops of bad news looping around loops of even more bad news, is something that I have written about just as I have written about needing to practice hope, to invest in community and exercise imagination past our current dreams constrained by the broken and violent systems we live in. So, what more is there to say? And why even keep saying it?

If we stop talking about the things we believe in and want to build upon, it is not some prospect of oblivious joy that benefit but rather those wearing us down with the insistence that their freedom and a more genuine, authentic kind of joy for the rest of us cannot exist at the same time. There has been so much talk this week of safety and order. If we make the wrong call in November, we will lose these things and the American Dream will die and the world will burn. Those saying this fail to mention that this death and destruction have already happened and many of them were around to if not cheer it on then at least let it happen to others. The politics of the rest of the year, much as they have been all summer, will be that of fear and anger. That fear and anger will be based on a ruinous alternative reality that disregards the actual reality which is ruinous in a very different way. An overblown, mythologized story of danger and fear for a subset of the nation will overtake the more real struggles of other parts of it and paint their pain over with a dangerous façade of agitation or betrayal or thuggery. In the face of that, it may be more important than ever to just keep repeating ourselves, to keep talking about humility, about creativity, about imagination, about togetherness and about joy. Even if it has started to sound hollow to say that every good moment, every bright side of a terrible situation, is an incentive to keep going and building, an investment in imagining a better future, it is still the best inoculation from the second season of this American carnage.

As writer Raechel Anne Jolie says in one of her recent radical love letters

“We need to name what’s wrong, but we also need to urgently and joyfully and persistently name what’s right. We need to offer our attention to what we want to grow, we need to train our brain to notice those moments when we or people we love act as free as we would in a liberated world. We have to notice them, replicate them, encourage them, demand conditions for more of them, until suddenly they are everywhere and all the time. ”

Those are the strings attached to our good moments: the urgency of not discounting their power, and the urgency to not keep quiet about our ability to still feel things other than fear and anger. It is not correct to say that joy and hope can be weaponized in the same crass way that fear and anger so often are, but they are the best tool we have to prop ourselves up during weeks like these when it feels like everything is wrong and there is nothing new to be said or done.

In his rather powerful letter to the mayor, chief of police and commissioners of his city of Portland, my friend and creator Christian Sager writes

“Across the street from my house is Vernon Elementary School. Its playground has a painted pie chart (pictured above) listing ways for children to respond to conflict. It features options like “apologize,” “talk it out,” and “make a deal,” showing that my neighborhood’s children understand how to resolve conflict better than the adults we’re paying to do it in our community.”

While the framing of this in the actual letter is appropriately grim, it reminded me, for the billionth time, that I have to believe in the future even when I have nothing new to say about it. Not necessarily for myself, but for those who are learning about the world right now, the kids that are presented with a more hopeful vision of the future than the one I can see after months of doom scrolling. It is remarkable that adults do not have the basic skills we try to teach to our children, but it is also inspiring to think that they might actually learn them. Maybe they’ll even get to use them sometime if we do not give up on talking about the world that we want to see for them. Those kids have to do so much better than we did, and they will if we do not let the apparent futurelessness of this moment prevent us from seeing those successes as possible.

Best,

Karmela

*In complex analysis, the residue theorem is a tool for evaluating integrals of certain functions along closed curves. It relates the results of integration to the residues of the singularities of the function being integrated. More simply, thinking about an integral as a very special kind of sum, its value becomes determined by the places were the function misbehaves or breaks down.

Ultracold now includes a paid subscriber option. All future letters will remain free, but if you want to offer small financial support for the writing that happens in this space, you can click the button below. To support me otherwise, please consider sharing this letter on social media.

ABOUT ME LATELY

LEARNING Since I am a co-author on two papers that are still caught up in the peer review process, I am periodically pulled back into research and presented with excavation tasks involving either pages of analytical calculations or long files filled with code. I had a few of those days this week, staying up late to run a simulation a referee asked for and calling into an impromptu collaborator meeting the next day. I got to see another recent doctor’s new couch on Zoom and confirm to myself that me and coding are not friends, but we can make do when we have to.

In my other physics modality, that of a teacher, I am still trying to barrel through the syllabus I have set for myself and making slow progress. Other teachers that will be teaching the same set of courses at my new school have been helpful and encouraging, and I am being pulled into more and more conversations about coronavirus safety. Beginning of the school year definitely still looks like it will be an emotionally charged event, and I am anxious about it as much as I am excited, but at least I get these periodic reminders that it is not just me that’s worrying about it.

Beyond physics, I have been working on a few items for the news portion of the Illinois Quantum Information Science and Technology Center (IQUIST) website and trying to pitch more stories of my own to other outlets. Science writing continues to be a really fun and exciting use of my time, and I really hope that continuing to find time to work on it is also furthering my writing skills.

READING Jeff Chu writing about the post office. I know so much has been written about it and the challenges it faces at this critical time, some probably more informative than this newsletter, but something about Chu’s framing just struck me as so simple and emotionally impactful. He writes:

“Stamps tell stories of colonization and nationhood. You can trace the British Empire’s decline by the gradual disappearance of the silhouette of Queen Elizabeth II from postage all over the world. And across the map, territories have traded colonial-era names for new ones: Nyasaland became Malawi, Portuguese Timor became East Timor, and Ruanda-Urundi became separate countries, Rwanda and Burundi.

Stamps reveal something about what a nation values; almost all countries like flowers and animals and dead celebrities. But only China has issued a stamp backed with adhesive meant to taste like sweet and sour pork; this was for the Year of the Pig in 2007, and, thankfully, I do not believe China has done this with the zodiac’s other creatures. And only the fishing-dependent Faroe Islands have produced stamps made from codskin. 

Stamps record social change. The only woman to appear on a U.S. stamp before the turn of the 20th century was Spain’s Queen Isabella, in an 1893 set marking the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Western Hemisphere. Martha Washington got a stamp in 1902, followed by Pocahontas, the first Native American ever featured, in 1907. The first Black American to be so honored was Booker T. Washington, in 1940.”

A few more pages of Gravity’s Rainbow, a very minor advance against the book’s intimidating size.

LISTENING The more I write, the more I listen to music instead of podcasts (a hallmark of my calculation-heavy days). This past week my mood changed a lot so my choice of artists changed a lot too. I went from The X-Ray Spex’s anthology Germ Free Adolescents to T-Rex’s Electric Warrior to Orville Peck’s Pony to Burd by Wilma Vritra and Reflections in Real Time by Kilo Kish. The heterogeneity of this list, female-fronted punk, flamboyant glam rock, corny and melancholy queer country and dreamy experimental hip hop, probably speaks to how all over the place this week had me feeling more truthfully than my words can. Music is like that most of the time anyway.

WATCHING We have kept up our watching schedule of mostly Halt and Catch Fire and some Too Old To Die Young here and there. Neither has really confronted us with anything particularly unexpected or new. Too Old To Die Young continues to be prettily shot but hard to watch and often unnecessarily violent. It borders on nonsensical in a way I am consistently not sure can be justified by its presumably satirical bend.

Halt and Catch Fire has me fully hooked on the strength and appeal of its characters, but I am starting to get somewhat tired of how rarely they are actually afforded good moments. The fact that something bad happens to a character the moment you start believing in them gets you invested in the show very effectively, but it would be great if the writers of the series utilized some other kind of story telling device as well. This show, for all its mostly progressive values and willingness to center women more and more in every episode, also suffers the common problem of including queer characters but only giving them tragic storylines. I know this is an 80s period piece, but queer folks that did not die, get sick or get beat up must have existed back then as well.

It seems like talking about sports as entertainment or sports as an exercise in running a business and utilizing statistics (and these days also as an arena for making political statements) has become common during quarantine. Our household is not immune to that, especially since my husband has a penchant for fantasy sports and statistical know-how due to his doctoral training, so we dug somewhat deep in this well and chose the 2011 film Moneyball as a movie night effort. This is a movie many critics seem to like and since its cast is quite impressive and Aaron Sorkin co-wrote the script, I expected it to be filled with snappy dialogue and show-off-y performances. Instead, this is a fairly quiet and claustrophobic movie that does pack some punches, but mostly comes off as a very subdued challenge to a more traditional sports movie. There is little to be inspired by here and I was not surprised to learn that in some very early version, it was going to be a documentary cut together by Steven Soderbergh instead of the dramatized account of Michael Lewis’s non-fiction bestseller book of the same name we ultimately got. Maybe this ever-so-slight underwhelm is the correct representation of how sports became as mathematical and calculated as they are these days, but I wanted this film to give a bit more life to its characters and drive its points home a little more forcefully.

EATING After spending a weekend visiting family and eating take-out my husband and I teamed up to make a home-cooked meal and settled on giving some more Indian recipes a try. We made this bhindi ka salan or okra in gravy (I added green bell peppers since I had fewer potatoes than the recipe called for and the peppers were looking quite sad in our fridge) and some chickpea flour pancakes or besan chilla. We served these with a fresh tomato, cucumber and peach salad garnished with chopped scallions, jalapeno, cilantro, roasted cashews, lemon juice, maple syrup and a good sprinkle of chaat masala for a really fresh, vegetable-heavy meal. I am on a bit of an Indian food kick these days and I am certainly enjoying learning new techniques and dishes instead of just calling any old spiced stew a curry.

We undertook two other team cooking efforts during the week. In one, we very clunkily rolled some air fried tofu and zucchini together with avocado and seasoned brown rice into nori sheets for something in the spirit of sushi. The other was a vegetable fajita spread with drunken soy chunks. I meant to make drunken beans according to this recipe but realized we did not have any after the sauce was already cooking on the stove. Reaching for dehydrated soy chunks I had picked up at an Indian store a while back instead proved to be a great idea. I adjusted the sauce some since they are very absorbent, and the overall result was deliciously chewy and umami. I will have to give this another try and write everything I do down.

Finally, I caught a glimpse of someone marinating watermelon cubes in order to make poke bowls on Instagram and was intrigued enough to try it. As with any other bowl meal, poke is about piling stuff on top of stuff until you hit every color of the rainbow and any texture that might taste good, so I assembled quite a few components as well. We had tempeh marinated in ginger, garlic, soy sauce and maple syrup then seared on the stove, homemade lime pickled daikon, a carrot and cabbage slaw seasoned with scallions, lime juice and sesame oil, a creamy carrot, ginger and miso dressing, some roasted then marinated garlicky eggplant slices, and a whole lot of rice seasoned with toasted sesame seeds and torn up seaweed. Together with the watermelon, which was quite good but probably needed even more aggressive marinating, it all came together for a slightly unorthodox take on what may be my favorite assemble-it-yourself fast food.

Absolute Value

On teaching physics with optimism despite its bad reputation and what and who physics may actually be for

Hi and thanks for subscribing to my newsletter! The breakdown: first a personal essay then some thoughts on my recent work, things I am reading, writing and listening to and finally some recipes and recipe recommendations. Feel free to skip to whatever interests you. Please do also hit reply at any time, for any purpose - these are odd times and I want to offer as much connection and support as I can. Find me on Twitter and Instagram too.

ABSOLUTE VALUE*

Physics has a bad reputation. When you are a physicist, that bad reputation tends to follow you around. When you tell people what you do, they either don’t believe it if you don’t fit their extremely narrow preconceived notion of a physicist. Alternatively, they immediately assume you must be a true genius. Sometimes they feel compelled to mention that they hated physics in highs school or in college. Similarly, students who are not physics majors, but have to complete a physics course as a graduation requirement often approach it with apprehension. They tend to blame their struggles with the material on the subject itself, assuming that there is really no way for it to be anything other than confusing and difficult. Even other scientists will sometimes speak about physics with a mix of intimidation and envy, assuming that because of the division between theoretical and experimental work and the centuries of mathematical underpinnings that physics has, it has to be the most correct science, the most objective science and a science that is the least accessible to a non-expert. When faced with the question of how to explain what physics is, who it is for and what it’s purpose is, to a teenager who may have only had a limited exposure to formal science so far, a teacher or a practitioner is really dealing with as much emotional baggage as they are with intellectual challenges.

Despite having taken my first physics class when I was in the seventh grade, I can’t say that I remember ever having a “big picture” conversation about physics with any of my teachers. They did not find it necessary to explicitly debate why I should care about physics or whether physics is for me. Courses would mostly just plunge in, immediately confronting students with jargon and busy blackboards. In addition to being left to reason out what physics is and what it is for– certainly made easier by the fact that I was very early on very driven to just learn as much as I could – I was also left to learn why there were so many bad feelings that mentioning physics conjures up and what exactly I should do with them. In my years training to be a physicist I certainly encountered a fair share of those, in casual conversations with others or even more forcefully lobbed at me by a voice inside my mind. Finding myself in the teacher role now, and one where I have plenty of freedom to sneak-in a more meta conversation into the syllabus here and there, I am thinking about my experience and wondering how dissonant it is compared to what I expected in the seventh grade. More importantly, I have to decide how much dissonance I should allow between that experience and what I tell my students about physics and physicists.

Photo: an image accompanying a rather odd article titled “What is a theoretical physicist” on the CERN website. It claims that typical scientists are “absent-minded, egg-headed, bizarre characters scratching their chins while deeply engaged in thought.”

***

Another important part of the process is a social one, the communication of your theory and experiments to colleagues. Submitting your ideas to the criticism (at times blunt) of your peers is crucial to the advancement of science. Communication is also important in assuring your own care in performing the experiments and interpreting the results. A scathing attack by someone who has found an important error or omission in your work is a strong incentive for being more careful in the future.

The Physics of Everyday Phenomena, W. Thomas Griffith and Juliet W. Brosing, 7th edition

***

Turning to textbooks that are recommended for a 9th grade conceptual physics course, like the one I am in the process of designing, I am confronted with both an idealized version of physics (and science more generally) and one that does not shy away from being cold and intimidating. While I was not surprised to see physics lauded as the most quantitative science, the most basic science and the most fundamental science, I did not expect paragraphs explaining to students that a good way to make sure you are doing your science correctly is to have your colleagues potentially rip you to shreds. Certainly, expectations of “blunt criticism” and “scathing attacks” do not sound inviting nor do they serve to make the field seem more welcoming to those that may already feel like outsiders. And some of these texts would have you believe that this is a crucial ingredient for keeping scientists honest and diligent and therefore successful.

While I have written about peer review critically in the past, I do not deny that it is, at least as an idea, a facet of professional science that cannot be done away with. Over the years I have become convinced that science is a team sport and a community effort above all. Having someone to bounce ideas off of, someone to check your work, someone to think of explanations of experiments and phenomena alternative to yours is invaluable. However, those relationships should be rooted in mutual-trust and something like team spirit and a shared goal rather than shame and fear. But there is often a sense of fear in physics gatherings, an acute awareness that in each group or seminar there will be at least one person just looking to shut your idea down. We excuse hostile behavior, however, as an unfortunate necessity of the job. We know we have a bad reputation when it comes to social graces, but we are also a little proud of it because we think it makes our work better. As physicists, after all, we are at the top of the science pyramid, and that has to call for some tough love and ruthless standards – or so the thinking may go.

Trying to rank sciences or assemble them in some hierarchy, whether it is one of usefulness or some sort of academic abstract excellence, hurts all scientists. People that direct funding for the sciences are rarely working scientists and more and more of big research universities are run like business rather than institutions aimed at, well, making the world better. To the mind of a business manager a ranking of sciences may read as a cheat-sheet for allotting more money to one type of research and abandoning other efforts. While some research groups and departments benefit from this, it establishes a dangerous precedent. Once you decide some sciences are just not worth the resources, you open the door for narrower and narrower definitions of worth and more and more defunding of research and teaching. Even if physics is the purest and most fundamental, some parts of it could be deemed as even more that. Discarding of other parts, or slowly killing them off via lack of support, ultimately makes the whole field more intellectually poor. Often best ideas come from interdisciplinary collaborations, unintended inspiration from a random talk or a class, or just unconventional thinkers that are allowed to jump and intersect various niches.

***

Q14. Which of the three science fields—biology, chemistry, or physics—would you say is the most fundamental? Explain by describing in what sense one of these fields may be more fundamental than the others.

The Physics of Everyday Phenomena, W. Thomas Griffith and Juliet W. Brosing, 7th edition

***

Is it factually true that biology sort of rests on a foundation of chemistry and chemistry sort of rests on a foundation of physics? Sure, ultimately everything reduces to just electrons and protons moving around. That simple fact, however, should not be taken as a signal of some physics exceptionalism. Many scientists, doctors and engineers do very well without a deep knowledge of physics or only a cursory familiarity with the bits and pieces that are folded into their work without much noise. The desire to convey to a young student that those bits exist and that the study of physics can be valuable even for those whose heart is not set on a future in physics is understandable. At the same time, there must be a way to motivate them without asserting that physics is a science that carries many superlatives and that everything else absolutely depends on it.

This conviction and an often not-so-subtle assertion that physics is somehow better than other sciences further plays into the ideas of the physics community being unwelcoming and cold or physicist being awkward or conceited. Just imagine it – in a science so fundamental and so important how could successful scientists be anything other than geniuses? As with so many things we think should be meritocratic, this attitude opens the doors for exactly the opposite of meritocracy. In other words, it is not so much that the smartest and the bravest and the most committed succeed as much as it is that everyone who has not been brought to believe they could be a physics genius ends up struggling. As physics has historically been overwhelmingly male and white (something not mentioned in either of the textbooks I have been consulting while designing my course), the conflation of a physicist with a lone, independent genius becomes a conflation of both of those persons with a white man. There are still fewer than 20% female faculty and fewer than 10% Black faculty in physics departments across the United States. If the field were seen as more friendly, more accessible and less invested in being the purest and most important, maybe its culture would not be an obstacle to more talented scientists from these traditionally underrepresented groups to join in and genuinely succeed. It is in no way a coincidence that many successful physicists have one or more parents that are also successful academic scientists and that they often couple up with other academic scientists (something I am also guilty of). Looking from the outside, many facets of science can look like closed loops to such an extent that they cannot be anything other than exclusionary. The problem is partly that those of us on the inside tell ourselves that what we project to the outside is nothing but pure curiosity, wonder and enthusiasm for knowledge and invention. The reality simply does not always reflect that.

***

In the scientific spirit, a single verifiable experiment to the contrary outweighs any authority, regardless of reputation or the number of followers or advocates. In modern science, argument by appeal to authority has little value. Scientists must accept their experimental findings even when they would like them to be different. They must strive to distinguish between what they see and what they wish to see, for scientists, like most people, have a vast capacity for fooling themselves. People have always tended to adopt general rules, beliefs, creeds, ideas, and hypotheses without thoroughly questioning their validity and to retain them long after they have been shown to be meaningless, false, or at least questionable. The most widespread assumptions are often the least questioned. Most often, when an idea is adopted, particular attention is given to cases that seem to support it, while cases that seem to refute it are distorted, belittled, or ignored.

Conceptual Physics, Paul G. Hewitt, 10th edition

***

While I do not think that many physicists are rude on purpose or that they set out to be unfriendly, I have often gotten the impression that many just buy into the heavily idealized version of physics a bit too much. This ten leads them to never question how their own behavior contributes to sometimes not-so-great norms of the whole community. Peer review is in part such a sticky topic exactly because it is supposed to keep us honest and make us rely on science rather than unfounded reverence for some personality or fear of some authority. When an author writes about scientists not caring about opinions of authority figures and relying on their empiricism only, they probably have in mind Galileo Galilei or Giordano Bruno fighting religious persecution. They do not imagine a talented young physicist unable to publish revolutionary work, or find a well-paying research position, because no one who is famous in the field is attached to their name or they come from a small institution or they just stumbled upon an unfair reviewer who is, again, likely to be a figure of authority. Within the field of physics, we certainly have our own figures of authority and our own internal trends which we are not immune to. These notions again trickle up towards those that determine what sort of physics is worth the monetary support thus creating even more of an imbalance among us.

The most striking thing, to me, has always been that so many older, more established, physicist claim that they are friendly and that they want to talk to anyone about their work. They all want to be inspiring and light a science fire in the hearts of the youth. I am sure that this what they truly feel and that this is what they think they are sinking their energy into. Those same people however will often feel fine teaching “weed out” courses, claiming their science is the most objective, and arguing that one’s identity and personal background do not matter for their success in physics, or science more generally. In part, I believe, this is why so often diversity issues in physics are addressed with countless outreach programs and never-ending talk of broken pipelines. These approaches to making the face of physics look differently do not solve cultural issues within physics. They only bring more people into a position to be convinced that they are not good enough, or not wanted enough, to be the kind of physicist that inspired them to join in in the first place. It is absolutely true that if our science were so pure, so fundamental and so objective that all that is on display is its beauty and wonder, then these programs would work and every traditionally underrepresented kid that gets inspired would go on to be a big deal physicist. But in reality, people are messy, and communities are messy and so our science too is, at times, quite a huge mess.

***

Physics is more than a part of the physical sciences. It is the basic science. It's about the nature of basic things such as motion, forces, energy, matter, heat, sound, light, and the structure of atoms. Chemistry is about how matter is put together, how atoms combine to form molecules, and how the molecules combine to make up the many kinds of matter around us. Biology is more complex and involves matter that is alive. So underneath biology is chemistry, and underneath chemistry is physics. The concepts of physics reach up to these more complicated sciences. That's why physics is the most basic science. An understanding of science begins with an understanding of physics.

Conceptual Physics, Paul G. Hewitt, 10th edition

***

Photo: me, a real life theoretical physicist, hopefully not a bizarre character

A month ago, when I was researching my profile of Prof. Debbie Jin for Massive Science, a collaborator of hers mentioned that she never felt comfortable giving big speeches about the status of women in physics, but still cared about it deeply. They insisted that she invested a lot of time into thinking up the best way to address the issue. As in her science, she wanted to be precise and use her strengths effectively. Ultimately, she settled on expertly leading by example. Weighing all the possible means for bettering her community led her to think that she should be a dedicated mentor, a stellar communicator and by all means a role model. While having this conversation about Jin, I was struck by how correctly she judged her skillset: I had personally been inspired by her. I saw her give one speech and immediately decided she would be one of my heroes going forward, a hero who did not seem that far removed from what my future might be. I am grateful for that – for her clarity, her positive presence, her friendliness and her being a different kind of success story than the many, frankly, old white men I had always imagined myself growing up to be.

Getting ready to step into my 9th grade classroom in a few weeks, I am thinking about Debbie Jin much more than I am thinking about whether physics is the most fundamental and the most mathematical or whether scientists are the most honest profession and most tightly policed by their peers. In my time training to become a physicist I have certainly not benefited from being intimidated or afraid and, much as I imagine a parent might, I worry about passing those bad feelings on to my student, even just unconsciously. What I do want to pass onto them is hope and conviction that though it’s a tough field at times, it is possible to make it through, the certainty that if you have curiosity then you should belong even though some of your peers may not think so. I want to be a one-person PR firm for the good things I encountered as a physicist: the camaraderie among women and queer folks, the openness of unexpected collaborators, the rare administrator that was actually willing to listen, the long distance acquaintance that always checked-in on ongoing projects, and so much of that famed inquisitiveness and love of discovery that can sweep you up off your feet even when it feels like the system is rigged against you. Nevertheless, I also don’t want to sell them some idealized idea of science, something very near to ideology that can serve to cover-up our human failures that undoubtedly affect our intellectual successes. Finding balance between these two impulses is tricky.

I have been frustrated with textbooks that turn a blind eye to the homogeneity and the bad reputation of physics. The fact that textbooks represent figures of authority and they do not address anything but a very particular, one could argue masculine and Western, vision physics only further symbolizes the problem I am grappling with. Despite years of mentoring experience and my having been something of a leader in many mentoring efforts within my past department, this feels like a brand-new challenge. However, what gives me the most hope and energy is that while I am preparing to take it on, I have been able to practice what I want to preach. I have been inspired by some of my Access Network colleagues that have found ways to teach physics in a manner that is more authentic, equitable and inclusive. I have gotten advice, tips and encouragement from past coworkers and future ones. I have been able to rely on communities I have invested in time and emotion into over the years in moments where it felt like collective wisdom will surpass my own (which is very limited). I am not saying my class won’t be a mess, but it will certainly be less of mess due to folks that have very little in common with the cold absolutists I have encountered in textbooks.

Best,

Karmela

*In mathematics, the absolute value of a real number is its magnitude or “size” regardless of the sign. For instance, negative three and three both have the same absolute value (equal to three). The absolute value is a simpler equivalent of what may be called magnitude for a vector or a tensor – a quantity that has more than one component and has to be represented by more than one dimension. For instance, if one imagines a vector as an arrow in two-dimensions, its magnitude is equal to the length of that arrow. The absolute value of a real number is a similar measurement, but for a single number that is essentially a one-dimensional quantity or a point.

Programming note: Ultracold now includes a paid subscriber option. All future letters will remain free, but if you want to offer small financial support for the writing that happens in this space, you can click the button below.
A monthly subscriptions costs 8$ while subscribing for a whole year costs 90$. Most of my letters are longer than 5000 words which makes for at least 15,000 – 20,000 words monthly. Clearly, a monthly subscription makes for way, way less than a dollar a word. Of course, I am not comparing these essays to the kind of work I may be able to sell to a magazine at a dollar a word, and I love writing these letters more. Whether I have many paid subscribers or none at all really does not make a difference for my desire to keep writing them. However, what you get in your inbox as a subscriber of any sort is a product of labor and you can click below if you want to acknowledge that past being a reader which I do appreciate an awful lot to begin with.

ABOUT ME LATELY

WRITING A story of mine ran on the Scientific American website a few days ago and I am elated to have seen it go from a pitch to a commission to a published piece. The study I have written about, connecting statistical mechanics and concepts from out-of-equilibrium physics to composed music, caught my eye while I was looking for something else in a Physics Review journal and I pitched to Scientific American only because I thought it was very cool and creative. Luckily, my editor was equally intrigued ad it was really fun to dive deeper into the subject and get to talk to quite a few other scientists that also thought the whole thing was fascinating. I really hope I’ll have the opportunity to write more of these in the future.

LEARNING My husband got whisked away on a small vacation with friends from graduate school at the end of last week and through the weekend which resulted in me taking a pilgrimage to a vegan deli in Bushwick for half of one day and spending the rest of my solo days in a writing and planning frenzy.

Through the process of writing for Scientific American, I learned that I really like having an editor. Having my writing taken a part in a way that feels productive was intimidating, but I could see how it made my work better and felt challenged to grow. A few days of back-and-forth on a little under 1000 words taught me an awful lot on what I can do and what I still need to learn to do. I did do some panic baking simultaneously with filing my last set of revisions before the article actually ran, but at the end I mostly felt energized to try again soon.

When it comes to planning my course, I have been in something of an opposite situation since I have a lot more freedom than I have guidelines. I am sure there are parts of the schedule (that has to be appropriate for both a blend of in-person and remote learning and full-on remote only instruction if something goes wrong) that I spent too much time thinking about and some that I can’t quite see the importance of yet. Having just completed all of the lectures, assignments and activity worksheets for Week 1, I am sure the same applies to my treatment of subject matter and my design of problems. Teaching in this way and under these chaotic global circumstances is bound to be a trial by fire and whatever I think I am learning now probably cannot compare to what I will be learning in a month or two. I am still optimistic, however, even with the familiar fear of running out of time creeping into my days. I think I just might have no other options than to learn how to stick with optimism going forward.

LISTENING Poet Marilyn Nelson on On Being discussing poetry as a communal effort, poetry as an escape deeper into ourselves and poetry as a gateway into finding inner silence under the noise of the outside world. It all sounds cliché, but sometimes clichés are very fulfilling.

All of Music Exists on The Ringer podcast network which I enjoyed more than I expected. I consume a fair amount of audio content from The Ringer (owned by Spotify), partly for insightful criticism, but to a large extent also because many of the podcast hosts on this network are something like industry insiders and have access to knowledge that surpasses just talking about whether a piece of media is interesting or well-made. I appreciate this context as much as I do the fairly uncensored banter that is quite strong across the music, film and TV shows The Ringer produces. This podcast, however, was a little less loud and a bit more personal while also tackling some large questions about music as a cultural phenomenon (How does criticism change our perception of music? Why do we go to live shows? What does it mean for a song to be heavy? What do someone’s fans say about their artistic output? What did rock’n’roll do for our culture and society?) which made it engaging and relatable. In its best episodes it reminded me of Supercontext, and not just because co-host Chris Ryan likes to talk about the Boston-area hardcore scene. At fifteen episodes, this is a worthwhile binge-listen.

Parallel Lines by Blondie because Debbie Harry’s singing makes me feel like being at all the summer New York  parties that we are missing out on.

This Ash Borer record and my playlist of space-themed death, black and sludge metal. For the first time in a few weeks I have been in the mood for heavy, crashing, grinding music that makes your stomach bounce and your throat itch, and it’s been very enjoyable to revisit that world.

READING Raechel Anne Jolie on love and pleasure activism during the pandemic in one of her recent radical love letters. I have come to really appreciate her writing. She is clear, direct and unwavering in her politics, but also rather tender and thoughtful, and this letter is not an exception. She writes:

“Just as my queer elders didn’t, I’m not suggesting we move forward with a reckless disregard for human life. As a Leftist, I see it as part of my raison d’etre to care most about the people for whom our system cares the least, and that’s many people who will be hardest hit by Covid: incarcerated people, immunocompromised people, houseless folks, and the elderly. Still though, it behooves us to pause when we are told that protecting human life must simultaneously uphold systems that harm us. (This, of course, is not so different from arguments we hear about the police.) And we might also want to give pause at abstinence-like models of remedy. And we have to think critically when the onus of stopping a pandemic falls to individuals and their actions rather than structural forms of care and support. In acknowledging this, we have the opportunity to find nuance that I think could be life-saving as we move into another month of Covid times. ”

And, later,

“How can we make life-enriching things accessible to people during Covid, and also remember this as a model toward more inclusive spaces for our immunocompromised comrades, even after the pandemic has passed? How can we continue to fight for a world that provides us the means to stay safer, like paid time away from unnecessary work and a health care system that actually serves everyone?

Can we keep each other safe and also keep joy alive? Can we both make responsible individual decisions that protect the most vulnerable among us, and also direct our ire toward the State rather than toward our friends who have decided to consensually hang out with other friends without masks? ”

This letter in particular has been a potent reminder of how fortunate and privileged I am to be not only housed with my partner, but also to be in a legal partnership that the state (and capitalism) looks favorably upon.

This poem by Jose Olivarez in Sonia’s Poem of the Week that resonated with particular potency while my husband was briefly out of town. I was both reminded of how beautiful it can be to be alone and how much I don’t want us to be apart long-term ever again.

Finally, two years after I first bought two giant copies for me and my husband to lug around and read together, inspired partly by an episode of Supercontext and partly by my friend Lauren once including a Thomas Pynchon quote in her newsletter KFZ and me still thinking about it two days later, I got around reading the first twenty-something pages of Gravity’s Rainbow. I imagine finishing this book by the end of the year is a lofty goal, and I am not particularly interested in trying to say something new or profound about it, but I am going to give it my best shot.

WATCHING We finished watching the second season of What We Do in the Shadows. Though I enjoyed a lot of this season, and this show, I was slightly underwhelmed by its finale. If more episodes are released in the future, I’ll be quick to seek them out, but I do wonder whether the series has become a little too invested in its own worldbuilding. Watching it complete the arc it has been hinting at for a while, I missed some of the more dry and more simple humor that made it so refreshing in the first place.

My father-in-law started watching Halt and Catch Fire on one of the nights when we were all home and up late so we made it through three episodes together and got invested. A show about early days of computing is something that appeals to me, at least in theory. I have eyed this series before but, for one reason or another, never quite got around committing to it. Judging by the first three episodes it occupies some middle ground between emotionally heavy and overly aesthetic-focused prestige TV and your run-of-the-mill cable drama, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It is rife with tropes that I don’t love: an anachronistically punk coder girl who is very much not like the other girls and given a somewhat uncomfortable and unrealistic prodigy treatment, a craven executive who also happens to be a bisexual that uses sex as a cajole and manipulates his coworkers seemingly without as much as a smidgeon of guilt, a couple that settled for a marriage instead of living their engineering dreams and are now both suffocating slightly (and the wife’s talent is painfully unrecognized at every step of their partnership) and that guy who played an old rich Texan on Glow playing another old rich Texan. However, it is also these exact things that make Halt and Catch Fire dynamic and inro some visual equivalent of catchy (though the soundtrack shines through as well). The four seasons of this show will likely make for good I-guess-our-day-is-over watching so we’ll probably stick with it for a while. I’m not expecting to be wowed, but it will be an entertaining story to keep coming back to.

EATING A few team efforts with my husband helping with trying to make new dishes from South America: this empanada dough stuffed with creamy spiced black beans and corn, served alongside a big massaged kale and avocado salad, and the simplest arepas from the back of the masarepa package smothered with more creamy beans and corn (this time in an ancho chile sauce) then topped with roasted plantains, cilantro and parsley chopped and quickly marinated in red wine vinegar and garlic infused olive oil, and a good dash of mango and habanero hot sauce. We were not great with shaping either of the doughs, but tastes and textures delivered.

This marinated tofu, sort of feta-adjacent, recipe paired with a big salad heavy on fresh tomatoes, a good drizzle of thick espresso balsamic and some roasted beets dipped in hummus. Motivated by a similar desire to eat things that are cold and soft, but having a completely different flavor profile: this super simple cold silken tofu (I left out the bonito flakes to keep it vegan, and topped with a mix of chopped scallions, cilantro, lime juice, sesame oil and toasted sesame seeds instead) together with a sticky zucchini, shiitake mushroom and green bean stir fry and a pile of rice.

Another foray into Indian cooking with this moong dal recipe and this cauliflower fry (cutting down the amount of oil by about a half) which I again served with a pile of greens very simply dressed with lemon juice and black salt.

And a great Italian-style sandwich and an even more amazing vegan croissant from Seitan Rising, a vegan bakery and deli that opened this past week in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. This is a small business owned by two queer women where everything, including vegan meat substitutes and all breads and pastries, is made from scratch. I was familiar with the owners from some of the pop-ups we’d occasionally check-out when visiting New York in the past and loved the idea of them getting to do their thing more permanently enough to brave an hour-long train ride to their new location. I sanitized my hands about a thousand times before getting to the shop but, in the end, it was great to leave our neighborhood for the first time in a while and the food floored me like it has in the past.

Finally, I tried to remake one of the signature snack cakes of one of my grandmas, a simple sweet batter made moist and tender by the addition of yogurt and studded with ripe stone fruits like plums and peaches, with vegan ingredients. The result was really good and uncannily close to the tastes and smells I remember so fondly which brought a lot of joy to me and everyone else in our household who suddenly had something sweet to incessantly snack on. I have made the recipe available to my paid subscribers earlier in the week.

Loading more posts…