Grad Student Spotlight: Maddie Pospisil

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I’m leading a bit of a double life these days. I am, of course, reading literature—poetry, fiction, and, this semester, a ton of theory (thanks Dr. González). But I’m also working on a collection of poems for my master’s project, which has lately meant learning as much as I can about particle physics.

I just started reading Lucretius’ De rerum natura, which is, seriously, a very long poem about physics from the first-century BC. Next up on the docket is Beyond the God Particle by Christopher Hill and Leon Lederman. I’ve also been haunting the physics lectures on campus (last week’s was about gravitational waves). And in September, thanks to a killer tip from my major professor, Dr. Traci Brimhall, I received a tour of the particle accelerator housed in the basement laboratory of Cardwell Hall.

It’s hard to explain a particle accelerator. (So far, I’ve written five poems that attempt to do just that. None of them quite gets it right.) But perhaps it’s enough to say that it’s a massive machine, taking up an entire room, that shoots atoms at other atoms. It forces a collision, and scientists study what happens in that collision—which pieces of the atoms break off? where do they go? is something new made in the impact?

At the end of the tour, my guide turned to me and said, “So…you write poems?” He said it tentatively, like maybe he had misunderstood. But he hadn’t! I write poems! My master’s project is turning out to be a big ol’ love letter to physics, which studies our tiniest pieces and what it means when they interact with each other. I lied a little bit just then, because it’s really a big ol’ love letter to the people in my life, and I’m just using physics to study what it means when they interact with me.

Earlier I mentioned I still haven’t written a poem that adequately explains a particle accelerator, and not for lack of trying. Well, I probably never will. It’s SO complicated. But I love that I keep failing. And I think it’s truly the coolest thing ever that poetry exists and gives me a way to keep trying.

Maddie Pospisil (M.A. ’19)

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