Perimeter Institute: Jacob’s classmates

Amid the extraordinary response to our article on Jacob Barnett, some readers wished for more information on what sort of physics he’s doing. I can answer precisely. Every lecture he and his classmates are seeing this year is archived here. If you are superb at math, you can take the lecture component of the Masters-level Perimeter Scholars International program from home.

To you and me that’s an intimidating prospect. No, it’s insane. But for an intermediate step, look at these presentations by the PSI students themselves. The one-hour public presentation is a standard part of the physicist’s repertoire. Pacing, clarity and even a certain sense of drama are key. So here we have a bunch of brilliant kids in their early 20s (and one who’s 15) honing their presentation chops by explaining simple problems in physics even you and I can understand. I mean, really simple. Here, Jacob Barnett and two of his colleagues explain why bicycles don’t fall down. Here, some other students explain how a kind of insect called a water slider can walk on water without falling through.

I want to talk about some of these other students. 

I came to Perimeter to write about the 15-year-old kid with autism and the mom who wrote a best-selling book, but my strong hunch was that the other PSI students, who are “only” in their early 20s, have stories too. I asked to sit down with some of the other students. Reporters sometimes have mercenary goals: for the immediate purpose of my article on Jacob, I needed at least one of the students to say “this program is really hard” and I needed at least one to say “Jacob’s awesome!” They quickly obliged. But the more I learned about them, the more impressed I was with all of them.

In the presentation on bicycles, Jacob’s co-presenters are Saad Shamsi and Emily Adlam. Shamsi, a big funny guy from Pakistan, has struck up a fast friendship with Jacob. Shamsi paid his way through Imperial College London by hiring himself out as a math tutor. His ad, which is duplicated on a half-dozen online tutor sites, notes that he “had the Highest Marks in the World for O Level Statistics.” Adlam had the highest marks in her native New Zealand in physics, Latin and statistics when she left high school. She told a newspaper interviewer she was writing her fifth novel in her spare time.

One of the quietest students at a table outside the bistro where I interviewed several of them was Tashalee Billings, but each time I put a question to the group she answered thoughtfully and with good humour. Billings is from Florida AMU, the largest historically black college in the United States. There’s no physics in her family background. She was urged to get a degree in something practical like medicine or business. She majored in accounting, found it deadly boring, and gravitated (bad pun, I guess) toward physics because she’s always been interested in stories about space travel. It turned out she had a knack for the subject. It was during an internship at Princeton that she first heard of Perimeter Institute, a place nobody had told her about before. Now she’s there with 30 other all-stars.

In the presentation about water bugs I linked to above, keep an eye out for the young man with dark hair who moves with relaxed physicality. Nima Afkhami-Jeddi seems too cool for school — certainly, if you pay any attention to academic stereotypes, for a physics colony like Perimeter — and for much of his adolescence he wasn’t in school. An immigrant to Toronto from Iran, he dropped out of high school after two years and spent three years working as an auto mechanic. But that extended early sabbatical wasn’t his exit from formal education. Afkhami-Jeddi has always been willing to figure out his own way if formal mechanisms weren’t available or took too much time. Before he left high school, he taught himself English by reading from a dictionary on the city bus every morning.

When he was done in the garage, he managed to get into York University where at first he majored in biochemistry. One of his profs “kept saying things about physics I couldn’t believe. I thought he was kidding me.” Among these seeming leg-pullers: the Heisenbergian Uncertainty Principle. So Afkhami-Jeddi became a physics student to find out whether it was true. He graduated with the highest physics marks at York, and his personal website says he “worked through lectures and course materials not typically covered in an undergraduate physics degree. Topics covered include : Quantum optics, Quantum field theory, Abstract Algebra, Introductory algebraic topology and Advanced numerical methods.”

So the PSI students are a mix of classic straight-A students and left-field entries. Emily Adlam rang every bell you’d expect one of the brightest students in the world to ring, on her way to Oxford. (And yet there are all those novels in a desk drawer, suggesting she cannot be reduced to anyone’s caricature of a bookworm.) Billings and Afkhami-Jeddi had less traditional paths to this untraditional school. It reminded me of something Perimeter director Neil Turok said when we chatted:

“What I see out there, and through my work in Africa, is an ocean of talent which, by and large, standard educational institutions are failing to tap. It’s the outliers, the oddballs, the unusual kids who often have the most to offer. And our whole system has turned into a factory. We crank people through, certificates, qualifications, degrees and stultify, don’t reward creativity, unusual ideas — which we all know is what counts.”

So how does Perimeter ensure the oddballs and outliers have a chance to get the massive career kickstart the PSI program offers? I put the question to John Berlinsky, who runs the graduate program. He sent a thoughtful reply:

 I could speak for hours about how we handle diversity in PSI admissions, which we take very seriously. We work hard to recruit a class which is diverse internationally and by gender, and we are interested in special circumstances and non-standard backgrounds.

“This year we had about 350 applicants. We have a large admissions committee of 12 PI faculty, in addition to myself, a couple of ex officio people, and a couple of specialist helpers. We divide the world up into six somewhat arbitrary geographical regions so that there are roughly 60 applicants per region, and assign two faculty reviewers to each region so that each application is read by at least two reviewers. This in itself has a tendency to ensure international diversity since the regional reviewers champion applicants from their pools.

“In addition we have what I call an ‘overlay’ in which one of the senior women faculty who teaches in PI and I review all the female applicants, to ensure that no really good woman candidate ‘falls through the cracks,’ as happens so often in this business.

“To a first approximation, once I have the input from the reviewers, I look for cases where the two reviewers agree that an applicant must get an offer. This first cut accounts for most of our admissions. After that, I start looking at cases where one reviewers said ‘must accept’ and the second gave a high, but not the highest, rating. I also correlate the top women candidates with the list of recommended acceptances. The pool of women applicants is much smaller than that of the men. However the average quality of the women applicants is high. Over the years, we have been fortunate to be able to admit an average of about 30% women PSI students, which is much higher than average for the overall population of women in theoretical physics.”


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