Magnetic Domain

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We were late to the Denver airport and then our flight got delayed. We ate at an airport café saturated with the smell of bacon. My boyfriend’s breakfast burrito was mostly potatoes and the apple I saved from the assembly that brought me to Denver was too powdery and brown to chase my salad with. The glorified newsstand-turned-store where we bought water had defective fridges and everything other than diet soda was lukewarm. Once we finally did board our plane, we were both asleep before it even took off. By the time I woke up the ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign was off and the need to stretch my legs suddenly hit me full force. As I was awkwardly trying to make my way into the aisle from my middle seat, my boyfriend still asleep leaning onto the closed window in a way that looked quite bad for his neck, one of my feet caught my backpack and when I tried to get it out of the way of the third passenger in our row a little red paper octagon fell out. I crumpled it back into the backpack pocket together with a yellow triangle and a green square of the same size and my nametag for the workshops and talks I had been attending for the three days prior. The nametag identified me as a ‘site leader’ and the colorful shapes were consensus cards we had been using for conversations and debates that involved all sixty or so attendees of the assembly I was returning from. Before they were all folded and frayed among the unreasonable amount of journal articles I had brought on the trip, the shapes were actually quite meaningful.

Here is how consensus cards work: raising up a green shape means that you agree with whoever has just spoken or approve of a proposal that has been made, a yellow shape indicates that you have a comment, a question or a different proposal, and the red is akin to the similarly octagonal stop sign in the sense that it indicates that either something very troublesome had been said or that the discussion has gone very much off-topic. In voting, no proposition can be passed as long as there are red and yellow cards still in the air. While the whole system might sound overly fussy or slightly reminiscent of kindergarten, it can be powerful. For one, the cards make the discussion much easier and much more efficient for the moderator as it is possible to simply see how many people agree with a certain point so the need to call upon individuals who will then just say ‘I agree’ is largely eliminated. More importantly, by being a visible, physical object the cards give a boost to the voices of those who might otherwise feel hesitant to vocally disagree. This system makes sure that time is given to every appearance of yellow instead of the conversation running over someone who might be too shy to fight for their five minutes in the discussion. The assembly I was attending, bringing together ten different programs from ten different universities focused on furthering inclusivity and diversity in physics and STEM through mentoring, summer programs and all sorts of other impressively well thought out events, was by design focused exactly on not leaving any voices behind or silenced.

In addition to consensus cards, we all signed a code of conduct as well. My boyfriend read it over empanadas on our first night in Colorado, at the eleventh floor of a physics building now busy with all of those students and researchers that fall into the category of ‘the five people that organize everything’ at their home institutions. I tried to read over his shoulder while someone started encouraging participation in karaoke at the front of the room. It included a ‘don’t yuck my yum’ clause in addition to a long list of identity components assembly attendees should be respectful of in each other and an explicit acknowledgment that it is always fine to step out of a stressful situation in order to re-focus and re-group. The next day the same code was discussed in detail before the workshops truly started. In the welcome packet we were given it was sandwiched between a yellow sheet with our schedule and a purple one with a lengthy glossary of terms that might come up during the assembly. I thought about the way the phrase ‘safe space’ gets thrown around in the media, especially when something goes wrong and all pundits have to rally and try to outsmart each other with anti-millennial takes, and realized I had never considered the notion that truly building such a space really does not need to require much more than a clear way to deal with conflict, a good summary of terms and a commitment to being respectful.

On the second day of the assembly we talked about the ways in which our own organizations, those that we flew to Colorado to represent, might be oppressive to individuals we had not thought about enough. Later we had a discussion of the ways in which we can support diverse groups of students, some that I had never even thought of despite the fact that I have been complaining about administrators drawing an equals sign between ‘diverse physicist’ and ‘female physicists’ for years. On the last day of the assembly we talked about accessibility and universal design and so much of it was completely new to me. In fact, I quickly realized that a lot of what I had been thought about course design in the teaching class I took this past spring actually served to make courses less accessible to all sorts of students. At some point the group from my university met between workshops and, over chips, oranges (the good kind that you can tell cost more than 70c a piece) and fruit snacks, compared notes on how much more we could be doing through our mentoring program and affiliated events. Later, someone tried to teach me, in two hours, how to put together a workshop on the white savior complex. The days at the assembly were long.

Every once in a while, I get talked into dinner or tea with some subset of friends I couldn’t escape making in my department in the past few years. Often, the conversations coupled with these hang-outs turn abstract and heavy and instead of rehashing the latest on graphene or holography, we end up in the weeds of trying to work out just how to be a person in the world. Often, this is exhausting. By now, I know that I can only have so many of these conversations in a week before some self-preservation-adjacent hermit instinct kicks in and I start craving being alone. A friend recently conjectured that I feel this way only when it seems that I have to explain myself in heavy conversations, when I feel that I have to keep my guard and make sure I am very clear, very measured, very well-defined. I was really tired coming back from Colorado but really it was the copious amounts of free vegan food and that one last I-know-we-have-to-get-up-early-but drink the night before that did it, and not really the serious conversations I had been having with strangers. While we were driving back to our university a different friend remarked that this three-day marathon session of activism and compassion didn’t necessarily make them less tired but it did provide a spark needed to keep on going instead of letting the exhaustion sink in deeper. It had been a long semester for all of us five-people-that-organize-everything so a spark was truly high praise.

I did not expect to come away from this assembly feeling like I had learned so much and feeling so inspired and encouraged to keep working to better my community, no matter how small and quiet that work sometimes seems to be. When I first looked at the code of conduct and the schedule I was equal parts intimidated and convinced that I was about to step into a Portlandia skit. I worried that maybe I don’t know enough or talk too much or that I am not sufficiently warm and caring or that I will fail to connect and appear emotionally closed off or that I will just make some particularly stupid joke and embarrass myself. In retrospect, it occurs to me that I worried about this because I had so little, or maybe none at all, reference points for what productive yet comfortable conversations about diversity and equity look like and what it might be like to be surrounded by a majority that truly cares about change rather than being apathetic at best. It is not so much that the daily reality of working in academia is full of over hostility as much as there is a lot of silence, a lot of shrugging and a lot of false niceties resting on invisible norms most of us didn’t get to vote on. People openly being themselves, talking about their feeling and opinions while being both honestly passionate and vulnerable, asking heavy questions and then not letting inertia steer them away from seeking solutions; these are simply not the kind of behaviors we encounter much in our day-to-day work unless the heavy questions are about something abstract and devoid of people. I was struck by how powerful it felt to just openly have conversations that would usually be oversimplified and condensed to superfluous pre-research-discussion small talk. Just before I left Illinois, as I was explaining my advisor why I would likely be out of contact for the weekend, she remarked that engaging with this sort of work would make me a good future faculty candidate if I decided to take my career in that route. Maybe I should not have been surprised that that’s what came to her mind instead of asking me more about it or even why I care about it enough to ‘sacrifice’ a few days of research work.

I do not put enough time into organizing to be truly able to call myself an activist. Mostly, I am a person that talks a lot and steps up to send emails about events when everyone else is busy. I am also, as was once pointed out to me in college, ‘not a typical physics student’ and I am as committed to changing that as I am committed to changing myself to be more just and more of an agent of progress. This is difficult for many reasons but a large part of it often seems to be simply finding the time. The sort of work that students do when they organize themselves is often not seen as work or, more harmfully, as work that is unnecessary. Moreover, as individuals, our emotional labor is rarely recognized as a meaningful or a productive effort – even when it is aimed at helping or protecting others in concrete ways – and we so rarely have time to parse and process information that is constantly being thrown at us, let alone the feelings and instincts it elicits. It seems hard to believe that one can truly excel at anything, much less be a leader, without being introspective. Carving out time and space to do so, to have difficult conversations and then truly absorb them, seems crucial for individual and communal success. This is another thing we don’t do much of in academia, and despite the pretense of objectivity and a scholarly approach to everything we rarely go into discussions having fully defined our terms and agreed on a code of conduct. When an issue arises, there is rarely a feasible way to call for more time and distance until we have processed it – unfortunately that is a luxury we only save for problems dealing with inanimate objects and math-y theories. The day after I returned from Colorado, I had three back-to-back meetings, mostly concerning my research with some chit-chat gluing them together. They were good meetings, mostly productive but I still thought to myself that having a set of yellow, green and red cards in my pocket, just in case, would have made them better.



* In magnetic materials, magnetic domains are regions in which the magnetization is uniform i.e. the magnetic moments of atoms are all aligned to be parallel to each other. If you imagine a magnetic moment like an arrow with each end acting like a pole of a bar magnet, a material will largely consist of random arrows until it is cooled below a temperature called the Curie temperature. Below Curie temperature, magnetic domains spontaneously form within the material. This mechanism of pockets of atoms spontaneously orienting in the same direction once the environment gets cold enough is responsible for the formation of permanent magnets and ferromagnetism in materials such as iron or cobalt.



LEARNING: My first day back from Colorado was full of meetings and then the week dwindled down and the summer routine of long quiet hours in the office took over. Some of our experimental collaborators brought up a fairly specific question that I have been trying to answer most of the week and, now that I have a little more time, I have re-committed to obsessing over one-dimensional quasicrystals. I’ve made a tiny bit of progress; hopefully that’s a good omen for the next few weeks. On an very inside baseball type of note, I read a paper that described superfluidity as a hysteretic response to rotation (in short, hysteresis refers to systems ‘remembering’ where they started if you change some parameter and then try to ‘backtrack’) and it sort of blew my mind. There is something very satisfying, and exciting, about learning a new way to look at an old phenomenon. Science can really be so encouraging yet humbling when it comes to the sheer volume of information researchers have uncovered already (and will have to uncover in the future).

In lieu of a summer teaching assignment I am helping organize activities and mentoring for women in physics in my department for the next semester. There is a whole group of volunteers working on some of these plans already and I am excited to see how much we can actually do. Picking up some new perspectives and also some more practical ideas in Colorado will hopefully help with this effort. Putting together a series of events helping women in my work community get more support and more power professionally, socially and emotionally on top of pushing my research projects further along would really make this summer as close as graduate school gets to the best case scenario.

LISTENING: When I first started seriously listening to podcast I mostly gravitated to the causal science communication and isn’t-this-cool type of content the likes of Stuff You Should Know put out. While I still love that stuff, in the recent year I have also made an effort to use podcasts to not only get the news and attempt understanding politics at least somewhat but also to learn about communities that may not always get the most screen or on-mic time. Gimlet’s The Nod and Uncivil, WNYC’s Nancy, NPR’s Code Switch and the new How Stuff Works show Ethnically Ambiguous fall into this category. While I am not always up-to-date on all of them, the well-researched and well-reported stories they bring about individuals and their communities alike are always worthwhile.

In their last season, Nancy devoted a couple of episodes to discussing the experiences of queer people in the workplace and this episode tackling being ‘out at work’ is something I think about often, especially since research conducted by the American Physical Society found that most queer physicists don’t feel like they can bring their full identities to work with them. On an even more practical note, this episode of Code Switch discussing the census and its implications for various people was really informative and offered the kind of concrete information that we might not always think of when debating the political situation of various minorities in the United States. Finally, thinking about consensus cards reminded me of this old episode of The Nod discussing a game that involves literal ‘race cards’. This more recent episode about a high school student who’s protest actually made a difference seems quite relevant as well.

On a completely unrelated note, I recently caught up with the Caliphate podcast from the New York Times and I am absolutely amazed by the journalism that went into making it and absolutely terrified by the story it tells, and how closely and almost intimately it does so.

On the music front I’ve revisited this Cities of Mars EP that remains really good. This is some fun but not too corny doom metal that is heavy enough to be enjoyable but still dynamic enough to fit into a sunny summer day. The cover art for this EP is equally great. I also came across an interview with the Speedy Ortiz frontwoman which reminded me that I sort of like their record Sports. I think of them as a hybrid of Sonic Youth and a more contemporary Sleater Kinney which is not necessarily praise but also definitely not an insult.

EATING: I ate a lot of great Mexican, Thai and Mediterranean vegan food during the assembly in Colorado and I was really constantly impressed by the organizer’ effort to have vegan options other than fries, sad salads of plain bagels. At the same time, since we ate our last leftovers at the airport in Chicago right before flying out of town, I came home to the exact opposite situation i.e. a largely empty fridge. For the rest of the week I relied on some pre-cooked grains I had impulse-bought at some previous sale, pasta salads thrown together from black bean pasta and frozen vegetables and some staples like cucumbers, baked tofu and kale. Since most of these meals were deeply un-fancy and only mildly planned out, I am sharing a reliable breakfast recipe that saves time and feels summer appropriate i.e. overnight oats and chia pudding layered to resemble something like a healthy breakfast parfait. This is something I probably would have not eaten a few years ago but have become very enthusiastic about in the last year or so, so I would encourage you to give it a shot even if eating soaked seeds seems like an odd concept.

For one serving you will need:
1/3 cup of rolled oats
1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon maple syrup (or brown sugar)
A pinch of salt
2 tablespoons of chia seeds
1/4 cup of fresh blackberries (or any other berries)
1 banana
1/3 and 1/2 cup of cashew milk (or any other milk you like)
1 tablespoons of peanut butter*
Hemp hearts for topping (optional)

  1. In a small jar mash the blackberries with a fork or a spoon then add the chia seeds and 1/2 cup of milk. Stir with the fork or put the lid on and shake the jar to make sure there are no clumps of dry chia seeds left.

  2. In another jar mix oats, the remaining 1/3 cup of milk, cocoa powder, maple syrup and salt.

  3. Leave both jars in the fridge overnight or at least 6 hours.

  4. Layer the chia seed and blackberry mixture over the oatmeal mixture then top with banana slices, peanut butter and a sprinkle of hemp hearts

Tips: As long as you keep the ratios of oatmeal to milk and chia seeds to milk roughly the same as written here, this recipe is infinitely customizable – try switching up the fruit (or using a jam or a preserve instead) or the nut butter (almond butter or some sort of a chocolate hazelnut are really good choices). If you are using plant-based ‘milk’ you can use citrus fruit as well and adding grapefruit chunks to my oatmeal instead of chocolate is one of my favorites.

As written, this recipe is not very sweet, and the sweetness is mostly driven by the banana so feel free to add more maple syrup or sugar. You can also top the parfait with some granola which tends to be sugary and add sweetness as well as a nice crunch to the texture. If you don’t want to bother with the layers, simply mix everything in one jar and let sit overnight. Even better, mix it in a jar of peanut butter that’s mostly empty. For a thicker, or a more calorie dense, breakfast you can substitute yogurt for some of the milk or just layer the yogurt on top of the oats and the seeds.

If you absolutely hate the texture of chia seeds, you can blend the chia mixture after it has soaked long enough for the seeds to get plump. This will make the ‘chia pudding’ resemble traditional pudding much more.

A completely different flavor: mix the oats and the chia seeds with milk then add half a grated apple and a tablespoon of dried cranberries. In the morning add the other half of the apple, diced, chopped almonds or walnuts and a tablespoon of almond butter.

* I am a big believer in buying the kind of peanut butter where the only ingredients are peanuts and salt.