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Cocktail Party Physics

Cocktail Party Physics

Physics With a Twist

Love Among the Equations

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NOTE: Four years ago on this date, the Time Lord and I officially tied the knot. I wrote the piece below last fall, as The Calculus Diaries was coming out, but it didn't really seem to fit anywhere --too "math-y" for the mainstream, too intensely personal for your average science publication, and honestly, still kind of a work in progress. But in the spirit of the blog as "writing lab," it seems appropriate to post it here, on our fourth anniversary, as a way of saying thanks to the man who irrevocably changed my life ... for the better. Here's to many more years to come.

Shortly after becoming engaged, my now-husband and I drove from a conference in San Francisco to our new home in Los Angeles via the scenic route along the Pacific Coast Highway. At sunset, we stopped briefly to refuel just north of Malibu and found ourselves admiring the brilliant orange, red, and purple hues stretching across the darkening horizon, savoring the peaceful sound of ocean waves lapping against the shore.

Against this idyllic Hallmark moment, Sean put his arms around me, pressed his cheek to mine, and gently whispered, “Wouldn’t it be fascinating to take a Fourier transform of those waves?”

A Fourier transform is a mathematical equation that takes a complex wave of any kind – water, sound, light, even the gravitational waves that permeate the fabric of space time – and breaks it down into its component parts to reveal the full spectrum of “colors” that are otherwise hidden from human perception.

Another woman might have been taken aback by Sean injecting a bit of cold hard math into the warm hues of a romantic ocean sunset – talk about over-analyzing the scene and spoiling the mood! Me? I found it charming, yet another intriguing color in the spectrum that makes up this multifaceted man with whom I have chosen to share my life.

My husband is a theoretical physicist. He spends his days pondering big questions about space, time, and the origins of the universe. It’s not just Fourier transforms that lurk in the nooks and crannies of our marriage. Our pillow talk includes animated discussions about Boltzmann brains, the rules of time travel, poker, phase transitions, and the possibility of a multiverse: the notion that there are an infinite number of universes out there, beyond our ken, perhaps containing carbon copies of ourselves – the same, and yet somehow different.

I have issues with this concept, especially when I’m sleepy: all those universes filled with doppelgangers cluttering up the landscape just strikes me as crowded and untidy. But Sean wrestles with these questions all the time, and is adamant in his defense. “It’s infinity,” he reassures me. “It’s not like we’ll run out of room!” I guess the multiverse has unlimited storage space.

I wasn’t looking to fall in love, and never imagined I would be a wife. Years of failed relationships had convinced me that I had no gift for making love work. My romantic calculations seemed doomed to failure, always slightly off, never quite yielding the right combination, no matter how intricately I manipulated the numbers.

By the time Sean entered my orbit, my heart had been broken into little pieces and reassembled so many times, I was convinced the telltale cracks would never fully heal. I gave up on dating, buried myself in work and told myself it was better this way. I built a thick wall around my heart and guarded the perimeter zealously.

Love stole back into my life, ninja-like, while I was looking the other way. Sean is a scientist, and I am a science writer, but our day-to-day lives were like parallel lines that never met. Our paths didn’t cross until we discovered each other’s blogs online. We quickly formed an online friendship, both recognizing a kindred spirit across the vast expanse of Cyberspace. Two months and many emails later, we arranged to meet over dinner at a physics conference in Dallas.

Physicists are often unfairly characterized as absent-minded geniuses, socially inept, with zero fashion sense, a la Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory. It's an exaggeration, but there is a tiny element of truth to that. So I was pleasantly surprised when a tall, lanky man with boyish good looks and an engaging smile appeared in the hotel bar, sporting jeans and a casual-yet-chic jacket. This was not your stereotypical physicist.

He ordered a martini. “I’d like to taste the vermouth,” he instructed the bartender. (He is a man who takes his cocktails seriously.) We chatted about science, art, music, and books, with the odd foray into personal details and more philosophical musings. A first date is usually fraught with self-conscious anxiety, as each person strives to present only the most flattering colors in their personal spectrum -- preferably through a soft-focus lens. But we had an instant rapport, an easy familiarity from our electronic exchanges that translated effortlessly into “meat space.” By the end of the evening, I was smitten, and happily, the feeling was mutual.

We defied the geographical distance, racking up countless frequent flyer miles. Six months after that first encounter, he proposed, and a year later, I found myself married and living in sunny southern California. I felt as if I’d stepped into an alternate universe where the calculations of love had finally worked out in my favor. I had become my own doppelganger.

With my new life came a new appreciation for the secret language of scientists: mathematics. Like many people, I had steadfastly avoided all things math since high school. My eyes glazed over at the merest glimpse of an equation. I was convinced it was irrelevant to my life – or at the very least, unnecessary.

But now that life featured a man who left technical papers scattered about the house, filled with mysterious symbols that might encode the secrets of the universe. Our living room boasted a white board with a constantly changing parade of scrawled equations, and our groaning bookshelves now included massive tomes on quantum mechanics and general relativity.

The deep, technical aspects of his work was the one part of Sean’s life that was truly closed to me, although as someone who writes about physics for a living, I certainly grasped the basic concepts -- far more than the average non-physicist. But if I wanted to appreciate the full spectrum of the man I’d married, I would have to learn a little bit more of his language. So I resolved to overcome my longstanding kneejerk rejection of all things numerical and teach myself the basics of calculus.

Sean was patience personified during my quest, explaining basic concepts, leaving practice problems on our white board every morning for me to solve, and artfully dodging the occasional bit of metaphorical heaved crockery whenever I hit a frustrating obstacle (“Integrate that!”). The frustration was real: Our communication gap when it came to math was a yawning chasm at the outset. Often I didn’t even know how to phrase my questions in a way he could comprehend.

Slowly, surely, that gap began to close as he helped me see that equations were all around me. We found calculus in the rides at Disneyland, and the exquisite architecture of Antoni Gaudi. We went to Vegas, learned to shoot craps, and Sean tutored me in the calculus of probability (and a spot of game theory for good measure). Even our quest to buy a house became fodder for exploration.

It turns out that the world is filled with hidden connections, recurring patterns, and intricate details that can only be seen through math-colored glasses. Those abstract symbols hold meaning. How could I ever have thought it was irrelevant?

This is what I have learned from loving a physicist. Real math isn’t some cold, dead set of rules to be memorized and blindly followed. The act of devising a calculus problem from your observations of the world around you – and then solving it – is as much a creative endeavor as writing a novel or composing a symphony. It isn’t easy, but there is genuine pleasure to be found in making the effort.

As with mathematics, so with love. There are no hard and fast rules to be blindly followed, no matter what the self-help gurus may tell you. Sometimes you just need to take a Fourier transform of yourself, shatter the walls and break everything down into the component parts. Once you’ve analyzed the full spectrum, you can rebuild, this time with just the right mix of ingredients that will enable you finally to combine your waveform with that of another person.

Does mathematically analyzing a sunset, or the ocean waves, make either any less romantic? Not to me. It only enhances my sense of wonder. When we listen to the rhythmic cycle of waves crashing on the shore, we can hear those waves because our brains break apart that signal to identify the basic “ingredients.” And every time we gaze at a sunset —a spectacular orange-red, or a soft pinkish glow—our brain has taken a Fourier transform so we can fully appreciate those hues.

I will never listen to ocean waves or view the setting sun in quite the same way again. I looked out over the water that evening and saw a picture-perfect ocean sunset, but there was so much more that I missed. Sean looked out onto the same scene and saw the rich complexity of nature expressed in mathematical symbols, the fundamental abstract order lying just beneath the surface. And through his eyes, I can now catch a glimpse of that hidden world -- proof that love can transform you just as surely as the Fourier equation transforms a seemingly simple ray of white light into shimmering technicolor.

Happy anniversary, Time Lord!

UPDATE: Was running around doing anniversary stuff all day yesterday, but as a commenter points out, I failed to identify xkcd, Randal Munroe's brilliant Webcomic, as the source for the two cartoons. Usually I link to image sources somewhere in the text, but failed this time. Although if you didn't recognize the source, you really should be reading xkcd on a regular basis. He updates three times a week. Go! Read him!

Wedding photo by Jen Kerker Photography. And the video -- for those who didn't click through to YouTube -- was an award-winning entry to a UK jobs site ad campaign, believe it or not: reed.co.uk's "Love Mondays" series.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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