Bored at Barnes & Noble
By Eve Armstrong
I was going to be an actor-and-playwright.
This wasn’t some plan I formulated consciously; it was just who I was at an early age. In kindergarten I wrote skits and enlisted neighborhood friends to enact them in our front yard. I’d scurry around the block shoving advertisements into mailboxes, grab fold-out chairs from the garage, practice my delivery to my bedroom wall before bedtime.
Science classes were boring. They meant memorizing boldface words in a book that weighed so much that one might wield it as a murder weapon.
Meanwhile, my father, a musician, had a childish and infectious curiosity for how the world works. I remember one night when, reading me to bed, he became distracted by condensation forming on my window. Finally he tossed the book down and said, “Look at that. Why does that happen?!” Of course I had no idea either, and we spent the rest of my “bedside read-time” debating the question. Looking back, I suspect that he planted the seed of a scientific spirit, which only needed a kick to get growing.
Cut to age 16. By then, I had earned a reputation in my small town for my work in local theatre productions, particularly comedy. People would stop me at the CVS checkout counter to ask, “Weren’t you Adelaide in ‘Guys ‘n Dolls’?” I was in love with performing, and there was no question in my mind that I would continue in that direction. I didn’t even think about college; I just figured I’d move to New York and continue what I was doing, only bigger.
One evening shortly before Christmas sophomore year, Dad and I went to Barnes & Noble in search of Christmas presents. I got bored waiting for him, and plopped down in a chair in their “lounge”: an area with sofas and a giant TV that always played some trendy movie that they were anxious to sell. This evening it was Apollo 13, which had come into theatres a few months earlier.
Apollo 13 is the story of the astronauts who set off on a mission (dubbed Apollo 13) several years after the Moon landing, and nearly died trying to get back after a mechanical malfunction.
I had not heard of the movie or of the true story upon which it was based, and wasn’t really interested; I was just hoping Dad would hurry up. I sat down a few minutes before lift-off. This was the part in which the family members were psychologically preparing for the event, in parallel with the NASA scientists on the ground preparing to guide the flight.
At some point during lift-off, I realized that tears were rolling down my cheek. We humans can design a rocket’s trajectory to loop us around the Moon, drop us there, and return. (Okay, sure, for Apollo 13 there were some glitches, but still. In principle we could pull it off. And we had, several years prior.) What combination of imagination, creativity, ingenuity, and painstaking focus was required to do that?! The fact that we human beings are capable of wrapping our heads around the way Nature behaves – to the extent that we can pull off a feat like that – overwhelmed me.
Overnight I wanted to be an astrophysicist. I wanted to understand how we knew what those people in that movie knew. I started caring about my grades so that I could go to a good university. I wanted to go somewhere where I could connect with professional theatre while pursuing science. I wound up at Columbia University in New York, where I majored in astrophysics.
Throughout my years at Columbia, and since then, I have felt my brain transformed into a new kind of thinking machine. I had never expected that. It helps me approach any problem I encounter – not just scientific problems – in a more logical, thoughtful manner. The work you have to do to get there is hard; I love/hate it. It exhausts and exhilarates me. It infuriates me and gives me a sense of insight and accomplishment. At times it makes me want to scream for mercy, and at other times to laugh with euphoria.
My love for theatre has not diminished. I see a valuable role for theatre within a science setting, particularly for reaching out to students and to the general public. I see theatre and comedy as active ingredients in a recipe for science communication, and it will mean a lot to me if I am able to contribute in this way.
Eve Armstrong is a theoretical physicist studying astrophysics, neuroscience, and control theory. Currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Computational Science Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania, she is excited to be starting as an assistant professor of physics at New York Institute of Technology this September. Previously active in the theatre, Eve is interested in fostering a connection between science and art, particularly in the arena of public engagement with science.