Science gives me a sense of meaning: Meet Joan Vaccaro

Joan with clock 1 (cropped)Joan Vaccaro is a physicist at Griffith University in Brisbane.  Her research interests encompass all manner of things in quantum physics.  She is naturally attracted to the deeper conceptual issues but she also maintains an active interest in developing practical applications.  She is funded by the Australian Research Council in partnership with the Lockheed Martin Corporation to develop quantum energy storage systems in a project titled “Lightweight battery with more yield than a tonne of coal”.  The project resulted from her pondering the physics of information in relation to energy.  Her most challenging research project, however, is the physics of time.  Although it has been a subject of contemplation since the time of the ancient Greek philosophers, there have been few advances in our understanding of the nature of time itself.  The only significant advances are by Isaac Newton in the 1600’s and Albert Einstein in the early 1900’s.  Joan’s contribution is to develop a quantum theory that shows why time is incessantly increasing.  Come and chat to Joan when she is on her Soapbox August 20th 1pm-4pm, where she will be discussing “The meaning of time: why the universe didn’t stay put at the big bang and how it is ‘now’ and no other time


SS: Joan, how did you get to your current position?

JV: I got a little mixed up with depression in my Senior year at High School, so I thought I’d take a break for a year before I went to Uni.  Then one thing led to another (and I got married!).  I eventually enrolled in a BSc at Griffith University when I was 24 years old.  I chose Griffith because it was a relatively new University and did things differently.  I wanted to study physics just out of pure interest.  I had this secret little hope that if things went well I would one day do some research.  But just to be sure, I also kept my options open and took subjects in computing and electronics.  Study was hard but so very rewarding.  As it turned out, I did do well and I went on to a PhD at Griffith Uni.  My secret hope was fulfilled!  I was inspired by my PhD supervisor, Emeritus Prof. David Pegg, to think for myself, be creative and regard discoveries as being “up for grabs” (i.e. available to anyone).  David’s influence continues to inspire me today.

After my PhD I didn’t follow the standard path and take a post-doctoral position straight away.  I think I do everything out of order! By then we had two small children (and an old cat) and moving overseas wasn’t so attractive. Instead I took a lectureship in computing at Griffith University.  After 4 years I found an opportunity to get back into a physics career, and so we set off to a post-doctoral fellowship in Berlin, Germany in 1994.  After that followed a post-doctoral fellowship at the Open University, and then a Senior Lectureship at the University of Hertfordshire, which are both in the UK.  Travelling all over the UK and Europe was wonderful: castles, churches, old Roman ruins, history, archaeology, architecture, culture and cuisine. Our children adapted to the different schooling in Germany and the UK.  However, a longing to be closer to family drew us back to Australia in 2005 where I took up a Senior Lectureship at my old institution, Griffith University.  I am now an Associate Professor.


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

JV: A few years after I finished high school I read a popular book by Albert Einstein on his theory of relativity.  He said that time and space were not how we think they are. In particular, if a person travels very fast their clock will run slower than a clock left behind.  This means time is not the same for everyone.  The lengths of things was also different.  I found this amazing.  I wanted to know more.

But it wasn’t just about physics.  I was also curious about what it means to be human.  I wanted to understand who we are, how we think, and where we fit in the scheme of things.  I wanted to know how to think about consciousness and free will.  I had read a book by the philosopher Herbert Spencer on the mind body problem.  I suspected that physics, and science generally, would help me understand it better.  So this was another, more personal reason for choosing science.  Over the years I have come to see that, from a physics perspective, consciousness and free will do not exist. They are subjective qualities relating to an individual human as opposed to being objective and absolute things.  This gives me a greater appreciation of who we are and what the “I” means when I say “I am Joan”.  So science, and physics in particular, gives me a sense of meaning.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

JV: Quantum physics!  It challenges our perception of the world around us.  Many people, and even some physicists, regard the human experience of the universe as fundamental.  They regard physics as simply a tool for describing the universe in terms related to our human experience.  For me, though, physics is our only chance to view the universe as objectively and untainted by human subjectivity as possible.  The human experience should play no special role in physics.  There is very convincing evidence that quantum physics plays a fundamental role not only for small systems, but also for whole universe as well.  This means that humans will also have a quantum character but it is beyond our perception.  The Schrodinger cat paradox, where a cat is simultaneously dead and alive, is an example of this kind of quantum character.  The many worlds interpretation, where there are simultaneously many different versions of the universe, is an extension of this idea to the largest scale.  Grappling with these ideas from a human perspective is very challenging.  But the challenge is like pushing yourself in a kind of mental gymnasium to build more creative thinking, and going beyond known ideas.

Exercising in this mental gymnasium led me to my quantum theory of time that I’m going to talk about at Soapbox Science. To build the theory I needed to dispense with time and space as humans perceive them.  I would never have been able to do this if I had taken a human perspective from the beginning.

It’s going beyond the normal ordinary human experience that makes this research exotic and interesting.  It’s like visiting another universe where things are bizarre and very weird.  But it’s much more extraordinary than that because it’s actually about our very own universe and we are all immersed in it!


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

JV: My research is driven by curiosity and an unquenchable thirst for understanding. I would like to reach out to young people, especially girls, with the message that this is all you need to follow a career in physics and explore the Nature’s deepest mysteries. I want to help break the traditional stereotypes about who are the leaders in science: they are not born that way, anyone who has curiosity and perseverance can make major contributions. I grew up in El Arish in Far North Queensland.  It’s a small town with a population of a few hundred people.  But my career in physics has given me the opportunity to travel overseas regularly and collaborate with people from many countries.  I am always surrounded by interesting and intelligent people at the cutting edge of science.  I want to share this experience.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?

JV: Fun!


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

JV: The majority of government research funding in Australia is channelled to established researchers who form research groups by employing young postdoctoral fellows.  The established researchers get credit for being awarded the funding and for the group’s research.  When you couple this with the fierce competition for research funding, you end up cultivating an environment of safe incremental advances directed by a research elite.  This is not the best for science.  Sometimes the most profound research is done by individuals, not research groups.  I would like to see a greater proportion of research funding allocated on the basis of the merit of the proposed research rather than the experience of the researcher.  I think this would lead to more innovative research.  I also think it would help alleviate the adverse effects of taking a career break (due to pregnancy, raising a child etc.) and deviations from following the narrow BSc-PhD-Postdoc-Lectureship academic pathway.  It would give a fairer and better distribution of research funding.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

JV: Each person has a unique viewpoint.  You need to trust and nurture yours.

Trust it because academia is a very competitive occupation.  Sometimes it’s as if everyone is boasting about how good they are and how much they know while presuming that your opinion is somehow inexpert or not qualified.  I used to find these situations very difficult.  I don’t have the personality to compete by returning the boasting and presumptive statements.  But I have patience to do battle in my own terms on a longer time frame, in actual research.  Personalities and gender are less important when it comes to research articles.  So my experience is that with patience you can succeed in the longer term!

You can nurture your viewpoint by thinking about concepts in your own way.  Develop your own conceptual tools by pondering the deep underlying structures and mechanisms before you learn the conventional explanations.  Later you will find things that other people have missed because everyone else has exhausted the usefulness of the conventional wisdom.  Although it is tempting, I’d recommend not asking your PhD supervisor their opinion on whether you are made of the “right stuff” for an academic career.  Only you know how clever you really are, how much you want to understand more, and how unique your viewpoint is. An academic career is up to you. Enjoy being a maverick thinker and just never give up.

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