Fiddles and F-theory
Meet Yu-Chien, a physics graduate student at MIT
Name & Class: Yu-Chien Huang, fifth-year PhD
Areas of Study: Course 8 (Physics) — Center for Theoretical Physics
Living group: Ashdown House
Activities: MIT Women’s Ice Hockey
Ashdown House Chamber Orchestra - Violin
8.02 Utility TA
How would you summarize your PhD to a layman?
I work on F-theory, a subfield of string theory, under Professor Washington Taylor. There are five types of perturbative string theory. However, we think there may be more of a unified picture. Imagine a blind person touching an elephant. They might touch its trunk and think an elephant looks like a tube. They might touch its leg and think an elephant is like a pillar. They might touch its ear and think elephants are like fans. They would describe an elephant as different things depending on which part they touch. In a similar fashion, we can only probe different limits of string theory and are therefore classifying them as separate. F-theory aims to create new models of Grand Unified Theory.
Did you always want to do physics?
I did my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, in Taiwan. Then I realized I didn’t really like studying circuits but enjoyed the physics classes I had already taken. So I decided to do a masters in cosmology and then applied here to pursue a PhD. However, after coming here, I took classes like quantum field theory and string theory and was hooked. Although, I think the mathematics department is also really cool!
What are your plans after MIT?
I used to think I wanted to go into academics, but sometimes I feel a bit disconnected from the world. My field is not so useful or practical, and only people who have gone through a lot of training can understand what I’m doing. I would like to explore the world around me a bit more, rather than constantly sitting at my desk. One possibility may just be taking a break from academics for a while. Some people go into finance, as the skills needed are surprisingly very similar to the ones you obtain as a physicist, so that’s a possibility. In contrast, another crazy idea is maybe doing another PhD in math! Right now I’m focusing so much on my current research, I haven’t had much time to think about what else I might want to do!
How long have you been playing for MIT Women’s Ice Hockey?
I joined last year. We don’t have snow or many rinks in Taiwan, so I only discovered the sport once I got here. I attended a hockey clinic the team hosted around February. I was the worst person on ice because I hadn’t ice skated much before! I couldn’t stop or turn! But I thought it was fun, so decided to join the team the following October, and now I go to practice three or four times a week.
What other things to do you like to do in your spare time?
Recently within my dorm, a few people started a chamber orchestra, which I joined, since I play the violin. Additionally, I learned to ski this IAP and really enjoyed it.
What surprised you about MIT?
Snow! Also that you could cross-register at Harvard. Currently, I am taking scheme-theory there. It’s cool that you can choose MIT but still experience Harvard in some way.
Do you play other instruments?
I have played piano since I was young, and I also play the bassoon. I started learning violin in college because I wanted to try something different.
What do you like best and least at MIT?
We have a lot of resources. I like that we have a lot of sports clubs — I played volleyball last year too after hockey season ended. I like that anyone can join and that the clubs provide a lot of the equipment themselves. What I don’t like are all the obstructions in my research, but that is more on me than MIT! Also, one of the worst things about being here is the language barrier. But, again, that is more on me! I react so much faster in my mother tongue; I always have to fully concentrate while talking to someone [in English].
What one value do you prize above all others?
Always striving to improve yourself as a person. A lot of us are too scared to face our internal weaknesses. I feel like it’s related to trying to find your place in this world. I always think about how we as humans on this planet don’t have to struggle to survive every day as all other animals do, and so I feel like the least I can do is conquer my own weaknesses.
What one thing would you want to have with you on a desert island?
My cat…although a computer would probably be useful to ask for help!
What one food would you choose to eat for the rest of your life?
Rice…sorry, avocado. Actually, oatmeal — I think I could eat that for the rest of my life. It would be hard to imagine eating avocado every day for every meal!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.