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Robert C Smith: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund awardee 2021

Robert’s physics journey has not been straightforward. His Asperger’s has made school and university difficult environments to navigate. Today, however, thanks to his hard work and determination, along with support from his university, he’s about to embark on a PhD focused on quantum gravity.

Tell us about your work – and what drives you

A big question in fundamental physics, perhaps the deepest and most important, has to do with what we call quantum gravity. This represents the unification of general relativity with quantum field theory. I work in mathematical physics, and, in particular, my research is focused in string theory and M-theory. Today, this is the most promising theory of quantum gravity.

One of the great successes of string theory is how, in a single consistent mathematical framework, we have a theory that combines gravity with the quantum laws of nature. This means that at very large scales, we find gravity as Einstein described it in his general theory of relativity. But on very small scales, in which space-time is discretised, we have a theory that captures the idea of quantised units of gravitational energy. We think of these quantised units as particles that we call gravitons. In practical language, string theory describes how the curvature of space-time emerges from the existence of gravitons.

Thus, we have a quantum theory of gravity.

Despite the many successes of string theory, we still face some open problems and challenges in formulating the complete theory. It is not possible, at this point, to speak of such challenges without a degree of technicality as this is a highly technical subject. What I will say is that, in keeping to practical language, one of the biggest and most important questions we face concerns what may be described as the non-perturbative completion of string theory. This is what my PhD research is focused on understanding.

Robert C Smith: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund awardee 2021

What drew you to this area of physics?

My physics journey up to this point has been described as highly unconventional. This is certainly largely owed to the fact that I have Asperger’s, and as a person with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) I experience a lot of difficulties and unique challenges. Formal education environments are certainly something that I did not cope with well in the past, and something I continue to struggle participating in today.

In truth, without the right support, I probably wouldn’t have successfully joined the University of Nottingham and still be working at the university today. It was a massive personal step for me, one that we worked up to over a couple of years, and once I arrived at university it was incredibly challenging on so many levels. It required a lot of support, patience, and understanding.

But I was also incredibly fortunate to have landed at such a fantastic school, with great support staff for people like me with ASD. The same can’t be said in all cases, and there are a lot of brilliant people out there with ASD who don’t receive the right support, or who don’t have the opportunity or foundation to pursue a formal university education for social, economic, or cultural reasons.

When I joined the University of Nottingham, I had become very interested in general relativity, quantum field theory, and quantum gravity. I read about a number of different theories of quantum gravity, many of which I found to suffer mathematical inconsistency among other things. This is how I found my way to string theory, also with the encouragement and support of my professor Tony Padilla, who is now also my supervisor.

During the first weeks of my undergraduate [course], I took my string studies very seriously, and around this time my interest in non-perturbative theory began to crystalise. In that first year, the School of Physics obtained permission from the university to accelerate me to a Master of Research degree. My thesis involved the study of double sigma models in string theory. I am now looking forward to studying for my PhD within the Particle Theory Group at the University of Nottingham.

“It truly means everything to me to be doing my PhD in mathematical physics. Now I have the opportunity to do so within a formal environment without financial concern, social judgement, or other pressures and worries.”

What does winning the scholarship mean to you – and what difference will it make?

I’m both proud and honoured to have been awarded the scholarship for the duration of my PhD. I’m also incredibly proud to have affiliation with the Institute of Physics and to take on an ambassadorial role, something I take very seriously.

Coming from where I do, outside of formal education, I used to sometimes sneak into university lecture halls and, well, there were times when I would think to myself that perhaps I could do a PhD in physics or be a good researcher in a formal academic environment. I don’t always think about it so explicitly these days, but it truly means everything to me to be doing my PhD in mathematical physics. Now I have the opportunity to do so within a formal environment without financial concern, social judgement, or other pressures and worries.

To formally pursue a PhD at such a wonderful university and as part of a very cool research group, to get to continue working with Tony Padilla and to talk strings every day, and really to be able to study my maths and physics in an encouraging environment, is kind of life-changing. I am very grateful and I look forward to the future, where, hopefully, after a good PhD I can continue to contribute quality work and carve out a formal research career, maybe even teach strings one day.

The scholarship has helped provide a good foundation in pursuing these ends.

What challenges have you faced to get to this point?

In addition to my lifelong struggle with my Asperger’s, which, clinically, has been diagnosed as severe, I also had a very difficult childhood and experienced a lot of bad stuff growing up. By the time I was 14 or 15, without the right support, I could barely function, let alone cope. And in these circumstances, the pursuit of one’s interests and intellectual passions were rarely permitted.

Instead, there were many times in life that were largely about survival and trying to escape. These were times that were generally quite debilitating. For years I also struggled with my mental health. I still do, although there is always an aspect of that owed to my ASD.

Growing up, I moved to different families, which offered great reprieve, and there have been so many extraordinary people that brought me into their homes, sometimes for years, and supported me as I slowly found my feet in life. These are individuals and families who intervened to fill the gap and take on abandoned parental responsibilities.

So, despite having to face a lot of challenges in life, some of which are quite extreme, I am also very thankful today. My life could have turned out differently on many occasions. And partly why I share that here is because maybe someone will read this and take something from it. There are a lot of people that have ASD or that grow up in bad conditions and are never given the proper support they need as human beings – a positive and healthy foundation to life from which one can then begin to move.

My ASD also brings many of its own unique struggles and daily challenges. I require a lot of support. I can compute scattering amplitudes but struggle to manage a calendar or money. I sit here writing because I am fortunate to have received support with my Asperger’s, to have a stable home environment, and to have a loving and caring partner, Beth. There is a lot of well-defined research which, last time I checked, showed that about 80% of people with ASD struggle to hold down a full-time job or be independent, and it was estimated that suicide rates are 10 times more than average.

Not all autistic people can work, and, for sure, I know that struggle to maintain my own independence. There were times when I was ashamed or pressured because I couldn’t maintain a job or understand how to pay rent, because I couldn’t maintain independence, understand how to manage my bills, and organise my life. Prior to intervention, I was kind of just left to work it out. Now, of course, that is my experience – everyone will have their own.

But the point is there are so many simplistic narratives about autistic people and even just about poverty in general. In education, I was once deemed a troublemaker! Another lost soul and statistic.

I think we need to do more as a society to understand the complexity of individual situations, and we absolutely need to do more to combat ongoing prejudices and to support people with ASD.

What would you say to those who have also faced barriers to following their dreams to pursue physics at university and beyond?

I don’t want to be naïve and just say “go for it”. The reality is that different people have different challenges with different barriers. If a person loves physics and it is their main passion in life, but at the same time is facing homelessness or a precarious existence, it is not just a matter of saying “go for it” and “you can do anything”. Poverty and class can be barriers. Racism, too, can be a significant barrier.

Disability, mental health, physical health – people face all sorts of different challenges.

What I'm trying to say is that if someone dreams to study physics, that is amazing because physics can offer a person so much in life. They should do so regardless of age, gender, race, disability, class, and so on. Absolutely. But saying that is not enough. People also need support, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It is up to our institutions – universities, government, etc – and it is up to us as a physics community to identify where support may be lacking. If you are a person wanting to pursue your passion for physics but struggling with personal circumstances or barriers to doing so, don't be ashamed to seek support.

Universities have advice and support services who can often help you to find ways forward.

What would you say to someone thinking about applying to the fund?

I would encourage anyone to apply. Unfortunately, I am not one to give advice about applications, because I tend to struggle a lot with these procedures. What I can say is make sure your application meets all of the criteria, and, if your application is not successful, don’t be discouraged. Take it as a learning experience – ask for advice about any areas in which you can improve your application for next time, and try again either with another funder and/or with the Bell Burnell fund at the next application round.

Visit Robert’s blog to read a fuller version of this interview and find him on Twitter.