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Richard Nally

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Nally studies black holes and number theory. He spoke about the experiences that led him to physics, the excitement of seeing math come alive and the inherently social nature of his work.

Graduate student Richard Nally is unabashed about his reasons for studying an abstract corner of theoretical physics, and it has nothing to do with the possibility his work might someday have practical value. Instead, he studies theoretical physics “because it’s cool.” Like many physicists, his interest in the subject grew from reading popular books written by leaders in the field, but Nally also cites a curiosity that grew out of a childhood conundrum.

“I was very clumsy. I dropped basically everything I got my hands on, and I could never quite understand why that happened. And so I asked. I wanted to understand why things fall basically. That’s still more or less what I think about.

“So I kept on asking my science teachers, and they all just said it’s this thing called gravity. So I kept on asking and asking and heckling, and eventually sometime in middle school one of them threw at me a copy of Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. I read it and I’m like, ‘OK, this is the coolest thing ever. I need to do this.’

“The big problem in theoretical physics very broadly is, there’s four forces in the universe, and one of them is very different than the others, and that one is gravity, and so we’re trying to understand how it works. There’s a framework for trying to understand it, string theory, and so that’s always what I wanted to work on.

“There are a couple different archetypical days. One is I lock myself in my office and read papers until I get confused, and then I go talk to someone about them. Another is you go to a seminar. Sometimes it’s on a topic very close to you and you understand it quite well. Sometimes it’s on a topic completely orthogonal to your research and you get confused very quickly. But you want to get the big picture and come up with an interesting question to ask.

“The third type of day is when you’re trying to find a good question to ask. You could ask, ‘Where did the universe come from?’ And that’s a question that people have been trying to answer forever, but that’s a problem that takes an infinite amount of work. You need to find a question that’s concrete enough that you can handle, interesting enough to keep on motivating yourself to do it and important enough that somebody else will care. That’s a struggle, and that’s sort of why you go to all of these seminars and read so many papers, just to understand what other people have been thinking about and do you have something to say.

Richard Nally

“One of the things I like so much about this field is that it’s very social. People tend to be confused about a lot of the same things, or sometimes you find something very confusing that nobody else does, so you go talk to somebody else and find out their perspective on it. If you don’t talk to people, you’re never really going to understand all of what’s going on. Really, you’re always confused about something. That’s the natural state of doing research, and for me, a lot of the time being confused is part of the fun.

“The fun parts aren’t necessarily doing long calculations with twos and minus signs and all that other stuff that you’re going to screw up a million times, and you have to keep on redoing until you get it completely right and then you check and double-check and triple-check. I don’t think many people find that very exciting. What really excites me is when you can see the math come alive and give you some sort of picture of the reality that lives behind it.

“I want to continue in academia. It’s hard, you know. There are not enough jobs to go around. And it becomes very competitive very quickly. But I love it. I really can’t imagine doing anything else at this point in my life. For me what matters is being passionate about what I do every day, and that means doing physics.”

Richard Nally, PhD ’21