It’s a Friday morning in Princeton when I find this gem in my inbox from a senior professor I know:
Subject: Not an easy e-mail to write ...
Your crackpot papers are not helping you. First, by submitting them to good journals and being unlucky so that they get published, you remove the "funny" side of them. ... I am the Editor of the leading journal...and your paper would have never passed.
This might not be that important except that colleagues perceive this side of your personality as a bad omen on future development. ... You must realize that, if you do not fully separate these activities from your serious research, perhaps eliminating them altogether, and relegate them to the pub or similar places you may find your future in jeopardy.
I’ve had cold water poured on me before, but this was one of those great moments when I realized I’d set a new personal record, the new high score to try to top. When I forwarded this email to my dad, who’s greatly inspired my scientific pursuits, he referenced Dante: Segui il tuo corso et lascia dir le genti! “Follow your own path, and let people talk!”
I’d fallen in love with physics precisely because I was fascinated with the biggest questions, yet it seemed clear that if I just followed my heart, then my next job would be at McDonald’s. I developed a secret strategy that I called my Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde Strategy, and it exploited a sociological loophole: What you do after work is your own business and won’t be held against you as long as it doesn’t distract from your day job.
So whenever authority figures asked what I worked on, I transformed into the respectable Dr. Jekyll and told them I worked on mainstream topics in cosmology. But secretly, when nobody was watching, I’d transform into the evil Mr. Hyde and do what I really wanted to do.
This devious strategy worked beyond my wildest expectations, and I’m extremely grateful that I get to work without having to stop thinking about my greatest interests. But now, as a physics professor at MIT, I feel that I have a debt to pay to the science community. I have a moral obligation to more junior scientists to bring Mr. Hyde out of the academic closet and do my part to push the boundary a little.
So what paper of mine triggered that “stop or you’ll ruin your career” email above? It was about the core idea that I’m about to discuss: that our physical world is a giant mathematical object.