Nigel Bush/Reeve Photography Philipp Ammon.
Shelfie: CAM browses the bookshelves of physicist Dr Suchitra Sebastian
We browse the bookshelves of Dr Suchitra Sebastian, University Lecturer in the Department of Physics. Dr Sebastian shares her top reads with us and along the way talks thinking outside the framework, the excitement of unknowns and bringing her whole self to science.
Concluding Unscientific Postscript by Søren Kierkegaard
I came across this book in my teens and was immediately drawn to its larger questions about existence and the purpose of life. It argues that logic cannot explain existence because existence itself is outside a logical framework. I agree. In fact, I was recently part of a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum called Will Science Save Us? and while all the other scientists there said, ‘Yes, of course it will,’ I argued that there are big questions it just can’t answer, such as ‘Why are we here?’ Physics is an extremely cut-throat, competitive world and the fable you are sold is that it is the whole point of everything. But I think it would be a very monochrome world, without a lot of hope, if that were the case.
For me, it’s the ‘not knowing’ and the exploring that’s exciting. In fact, the more unknowns, the more exciting I find it.
A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
Conventionally, science is done with a specific goal in mind. You have a hypothesis that you try to prove and it’s all about the ‘knowing’ and the ‘controlling’ of something. But for me, it’s the ‘not knowing’ and the exploring that’s exciting. In fact, the more unknowns, the more exciting I find it. So this book – which is part mystery and part magical realism – resonates with me because you’re on this quest where you’re not quite sure where you are going or what you will discover. It’s a book that takes you off balance and out of your comfort zone.
Watt by Samuel Beckett
With science, you make observations, then try to give them meaning. But oftentimes, what you find doesn’t fit into the framework you expected it to. That doesn’t mean that what you found lacks meaning, but scientists find this disconcerting. I, however, will happily say, “I’ve made this discovery and although it doesn’t fit into an existing framework, that’s the exciting bit because it means we need a whole new framework!” This book explores the very concept of finding meaning, with Watt feeling he’s going mad because he can’t find explanations for things and can’t place them into context. The book plays with you, so one minute you think you’ve grasped it, but then it’s gone, leaving you wondering whether you grasped it at all – it’s brilliant.
I gave myself an ultimatum – either walk away from physics or bring my whole self to science, and today I’m much happier, and a better physicist, for it.
Middlemarch by George Eliot
I love how the protagonist’s fierce intellect, combined with her extreme passion, make for such a compelling and nuanced character. Novels – as Virginia Woolf pointed out – enable women to be empowered and multi-faceted, even if the real lives of Victorian women were relatively restricted. I think this also translates to academic science, where there is still very little space for women to be themselves. For starters, there aren’t many of us, and many of the men conform to an idea that scientists are all about logic and being narrowly focused. For a while, I found myself subconsciously trying to fit the stereotype. My wake-up call was realising I didn’t even recognise myself any more. I didn’t laugh; I wasn’t light-hearted. So I gave myself an ultimatum – either walk away from physics or bring my whole self to science, and today I’m much happier, and a better physicist, for it.
Interview by Kate Hilpern. This article first appeared in CAM - the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, edition 79. Find out how to receive CAM.