UMD webglobe


University of Maryland Department of Physics 1117 John S. Toll Physics Building College Park , MD 20742



xxxxxxxxxxxxNovember 2006 - Issue 51


So, What Do You Do?---By : Elizabeth Lockner


“So, what will that be useful for?” 
The sequence of questions is so predictable I sometimes feel we should write out answers and exchange them on note cards when we meet new people – just to save time.
“What do you do?”  I’m a graduate student in physics at the University of Maryland.
“Physics, huh?” (Sometimes with the added “Wow, I HATED that in high school!!!”)
“What sort of physics are you studying?”  High Energy Particle Physics, a VERY exciting field with the upcoming opening of the LHC, the new super high power accelerator at CERN in Geneva!
“I see.  So, what will this be useful for?”  Perhaps absolutely nothing – in the terms they are thinking.  I read into that question a search for some practical application that will make our daily lives better, that will boost our economy or make us less dependent on fossil fuels or lead to a technological advance that could help us go where no man (or woman) has gone before.  This stranger is asking me to justify my efforts, to prove that the way I spend my days and many nights is somehow equally valid as the heart surgeon who saves lives every few hours.
The only answer I can give is that I never grew up.  I never outgrew that stage of childhood that stretches every parents patience with a need for fundamental, beginning of everything, no “just because” answers.  Why do we care what makes up the Universe?  Sure, that understanding may help us make cars fly, but that’s not why we do it.  We do it because it’s there, because it taunts us with little bits of insight every once in a while.
As I step back and survey the “worth” of my work I consider my brother in the Army fighting for our country, my best friend teaching 4th graders the morals that will make the future generation great, my previous housemate doing physical therapy for head trauma patients so they can put their lives back together.  My efforts seem selfish and moderately juvenile.  I just want to know.  I want to know if these complex theories of matter interactions are right – or just thicker versions of Dr. Suess.  I want to know why things seem to fit together in such a beautiful pattern.  The answers are waiting for us to find them, waiting for us to ask the right questions.  I want to be there when we do.
What will this be useful for? “Probably not much.  So what do you do?”