You’re never too old

Once upon a time, i completed a thesis on gravitational wave detectors, and got a Ph.D. that culminated more than twelve years of my life devoted to physics. Normally, that would have been just the beginning of a researcher’s career, but sometimes life intervenes and, as was my case, the doctorate marks instead what seems its end. I shifted gears and began a professional career as a programmer, not an unheard of story. During more than eight years, i’ve had lots of fun discovering a new world, full of interesting people, with its own myths, heroes and battles. I’ve tried hard to learn and even give something back, and, until a few months ago i was pretty happy with the idea of going on that way for the foreseeable future.

But then a little miracle happened. Despite not being a pro anymore, i had tried to read every now and then about physics (many books, and things like Scientific American or Physics Today, you know the drill) and to keep current (at a not too technical level) in latest advancements in the field. Thus, when last year somebody told me that he was going to a popular physics lecture (by some unknown guy) at my hometown’s science museum, i gladly joined the expedition. Two surprises were awaiting my arrival to the lecture room.

First, the lecturer was no other than Noble Laureate Frank Wilczek, who gave a nice talk about Dirac’s equation, including reminiscences about the man himself (since he was Wilczek professor during some time). Not bad for an unknown lecturer. The second surprise also involved an unexpected encounter, this time with my Ph.D. advisor. I hadn’t seen him for more than seven years and, naturally, there were lots of news and gossip to exchange after the lecture. To make a long history short, as a result of that talk i joined the Catalan Institute for Space Studies, where Alberto leads the Spanish contribution to ESA’s Lisa Pathfinder project, a forerunner of the planned LISA gravitational wave detector.

Until this fall, my work at IEEC is centered on software development. But once our application enters the testing and validation phases, i’ll have time to work on physics again. The Institute being a primarily a scientific institution, the plan is to get involved in LISA at a scientific level. Let me say that again: i’ll work on physics again. Who said dreams never come true? At first, a nagging doubt clouded my mind every now and then, a little devil whispering “you’re too old, you missed that train,” but i remembered a quote by one of my favourite authors:

It is never too late to be what you might have been.

So i will try again. I’ll work hard to relearn what i once knew, and then more. To trod the old paths, only a little bit wiser. In the old times, the web was in its infancy (i remember using Mosaic, and drooling over Netscape 1.0), but now i have at my disposal an amazing amount of on-line information, and a way to share my forthcoming toils and discoveries. I know i would have loved this when i started learning physics. So this blog’s intent is to share the joy of discovering physics, and physics, instead of boring autobiographical notes, will be the theme of the forthcoming entries in this space.

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41 Responses to “You’re never too old”

  1. Dave Bacon Says:

    Wow, awesome story. And welcome back to physics!

  2. jao Says:

    Thanks, Dave. It’s nice to hear of someone reading my posts :) And the pleasure doubles when it comes from the author of Quantum Pontiff, one of my favourite blogs.

  3. Blogs! | Cosmic Variance Says:

    […] physics musings, subtitled “the tale of a physicist’s comeback.” Jao (Jose Antonio Ortega Ruiz) got a Ph.D. in gravitational-wave detectors, left the field, and has now been inspired to get back in. […]

  4. Alejandro Rivero Says:

    I hope it is not too late for me to welcome you back!

  5. Yidun Says:

    All best wishes on your way back! Btw, I added your blog to my blogroll.

  6. jao Says:

    Alejandro, you know, it’s never too late! :) Thanks.

    Yidun, thanks… i returned your attention: a very nice blog that of yours!

  7. Road To Unification » Couple of things Says:

    […] Physics Musings. Don’t get confused with the famous stringy blog Musings. This blog is run by Jose Antonio Ortega Ruiz, a Spanish Ph.D. in physics. Many year ago, Dr. Ruiz had to give up physics but to do programming after getting his degree. The amazing thing is that he is coming back to physics now after having been away from physics for a long long time. So he describes his blog as "a tale of a physicist’s come back". He also has a touching short essay about his story, here. In his words, "you’re never too old". […]

  8. Christine Dantas Says:

    That is great!

    We seem to live in quite similar worlds….

    Best wishes

  9. diddue Says:

    Great! I agree!!! I had leave my studies ( Philosophy of Science) for ten years, I got my degree last year at 39 years old with a thesis degree on quantum mechanics… it’s a cartoon film !!! :mrgreen: because I’m an animator! Incredible:a success…never too old, never too late
    I’ll add your blog to my blogroll :)


  10. Srinivasa Ramanujam Says:

    Happy are those who chose the course from their heart. Blessed are those who are destined to carry on their work in which they are trained. You are happy as well as blessed. My wishes.

  11. Tad Says:

    It’s a joy to read some of your posts — it’ll take me a while to catch up. My story is somewhat similar: Ph.D. in Astrophysics (Galactic Chemical Evolution) and then 8 years in the software business (mainly 3D graphics and OpenGL). I knew I always wanted physics to be my career, so I jumped ship and joined the faculty at the local community college. I love this job. And now I’m itching to get back to my true passion and interest, which was theoretical particle physics. Thanks for the incidental inspiration. I’m starting back with some of the upper-level undergrad texts in physics and hope to get back to my former level soon.

  12. jao Says:

    Christine, Cristina, Tad… thanks for sharing. It’s very nice to find people like you, living, as Christine says, in quite the same world. It helps whenever i have the temptation to feel old again; as do help, in their poetical way, Srinivasa’s words. I’m discovering that it really doesn’t matter if one ends up working ‘professionally’ as a physicist again: the gift is the journey. I had never felt younger! :)

  13. Bob Evans Says:

    Hi Jao,
    This must be a well-trodden path. I have returned to graduate school to (hopefully) finish my PhD after a 30 year (yes!) absence from physics. I have been a professional software developer for all those intervening years. I just became bored and felt burned out. My wife, who is very intuitive, came up with a novel suggestion: “why don’t you return to grad school?”. Bingo – a rebirth. I am retaking all the core graduate courses. I seem to love theoretical physics even more than when I was a kid, like something dormant but growing within me for 30 years. When I walk across campus, students are very friendly and smiling. This was great with those beautiful co-eds until I realized that they think I’m faculty at age 59!
    You really do have to follow your heart.

  14. andy.s Says:

    This post appeared to originate last April, but if it’s never too late to get back into physics, then I guess it’s never too late to add a post.

    I thought I was the only one! I have not yet taken the step of applying for grad school; but I’m taking junior level physics courses at Univ of Washington after being in the software industry for 25 years.

    Thanks to Christine, diddue, Tad, Bob and especially jao for the inspiration!

  15. jon Says:

    How inspiring! I’m not a physicist, just a bored IT person afraid I’m too old to move into something new, and I’m so happy to hear these stories. Thanks jao!

  16. Brian van Doren Says:

    I am 33 and have just been accepted into a couple physics programs. I’ll be so much older than my peers (but maybe wiser? does a wise person start a PhD at 33?).

    Your quote made me feel better though:

    It is never too late to be what you might have been.

  17. Paul Says:

    There seems to be a common theme here. Young physicists take note – even if you’re tempted by IT money, stick with your dream (if physics is your dream). Old boys like me who took the money can get back in when they’ve saved enough of that filthy IT lucre to retire early. After 25 years in my case, and only in a virtual campus (so far). It’s still great, physics books are so much more interesting than “Visual basic for idiots’. This time I’ll find out how that Dirac equation works…

  18. musafiremes Says:

    Hi jao, I’m a numerical relativity PhD student. Your story above has really inspired me, after hearing horror academia stories elsewhere (specifically in astronomy recently…).

  19. Luis Sanchez Says:

    Hi. I would really like to see more posts in your excellent blog, reading your story was actually quite useful for me, as I was quite recently in the inverse situation: leaving physics for good.

    Just in case you wonder, no, I won’t leave physics/astro, after all I am actually quite proud of my career. By the way, any news on LISA Pathfinder?

  20. John Says:

    Wow. Neat blog. I left a physics grad program 2 years in because I felt:

    * it was a ton of work with what seemed little chance of payoff (there’s only so many professorships and tech companies),
    * maybe I’m not smart enough to do it (takes some serious brains to get a grad degree in physics (I think)),
    * I was somewhat behind my peers from countries outside the US, and
    * I was newly wed and wanting a regular job.

    Still flirt with the idea of getting back into it. Those Feynman Lectures books still call my name from time to time. :)

  21. carlbrannen Says:

    Wonderful story, and it is inspiring to hear from other people who left physics and then were able to return. If I came back, it would probably be to design ICs and FPGAs, which is what my expertise was for many years.

    And you should be commended for being thought to be a faculty by the locals. When I dropped by the Math library at the University of Washington some time ago, they asked me if I was there to fix the copier. (I managed to choke out a “no” when my urge was to joke “Actually, I’m here to break it”.)

    I took general relativity from none other than Weber himself back when he taught at U. California, Irvine (1983), and soon after left physics, but have begun studying again on my own. And as a programmer, you might enjoy my GR java applet, which draws Newton, Schwarzschild, and Painleve coordinates.

  22. carlbrannen Says:

    I hate WordPress not allowing preview, though I love the \int_0^1\cos(xt)\;dt equations. The corrected applet link.

  23. G.S. Link Says:

    In IT we don’t care who you are or what degrees you hold. Either your software runs or it doesn’t. The same is not true in either Physics or Astronomy. Your degrees depend on your accent when you say, “Poly want a cracker!” and not whether your work is testable or even correct. I left Physics when I became aware that I had an allergy to tar remover. This was because I took the equation Delta E X Delta t > h bar and started asking questions about the limit of Delta t as it approaches zero. The implications of this question are NOT welcome. IT is much safer.

  24. Larry Talbott Says:

    Very inspiring! I am a slacker in his mid 40s who is now beginning to take the courage and study math. I recently was inspired by a Star trek museum display at the San Diego Aerospace Museum.I remembered my childhood aspirations to be a scientist or an astronaut.So now I am motivated to stick my nose to the grind and do what I need to do. Hopefully it will all be fun.

  25. Subway Philosophy Says:

    I don’t know anything about physics, but I do love your writing. I get lost in it, and re-re-read and google and wikipedia, and fail miserably. Regardless, congratulations on getting back on the horse most people will never know how to get on.

  26. Rads Says:

    I stumbled across this today, and love it! You should continue! It’s good to see fellow lovers of physics around. :)

  27. Hertz Says:

    I stumbled upon your blog after typing “am I too old to start a phd in physics”. I’ll be 29 when I start my phd in string theory. I often think this is too old. Most people finish their phd around 25 I noticed. I worry that I’ve wasted my creative peak. Most great physicists seem to produce their best work in their 30’s, whereas I’ll be still in training.
    I probably compare myself too much, but I have a hard time shaking those ideas off. Anyhow it felt good sharing them and reading about your experience.

  28. RW Says:

    I came across this article after searching the term “Am I too old to start studying physics?” I started my professional career as a programmer (many years ago) but have always kept up with the latest advances in Physics by following many online and print periodicals. I find the subject completely fascinating and I have a very rudamentary understanding of the basic concepts.

    I’m 40 and planning to return to school in the fall hopefully to pursue my studies in Physics. I’m very nervous but at the same time, very excited and looking forward to going back to school. I hope to find a similar level of satisfaction and fullfillment as you have had throughout your professional career.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  29. effortlesseffort Says:

    Thanks, this is really nice, you are truly an inspiration.

  30. thomas gower Says:

    great story! Im 43 and working on a problem for 8 years just when I think I should quit I get motivated to keep going…thanks.

  31. Aldo Says:

    its nice to read this. Unfortunately I am now 31 and I know almost nothing mathematical! the farthest I’ve ever gone is algebra 1 in high school. due to childhood circumstances I could never have proper education and even now as an adult the thought of going back to school to learn math (or anything really) scares me since I feel that its a daunting task! but my interest in understanding the universe (and reality really) leaves me no choice but to go back to school. I was thinking about learning programming since it is the edge of our sword somewhat, but reading this made me think twice about learning physics. I really do love it. I just don’t understand anything past pictures really. I want to be able to imagine this stuff in my mind and there aren’t any theoretical physicists that are good at animation just yet. anyway thanks for sharing.

  32. Roxie Says:

    I’m 48 and tomorrow is the first day of my Mathematics degree. I’m a secretary in real estate. If I can do this ANYONE can!

  33. Piet Says:

    I abandoned my physics education a long time ago and just returned on the advent of my 29th birthday. It’s surprising how much easier it is without the panicky brain of an adolescent male trying too hard to fit in.

    • sol Says:

      I can agree with your statement of having an adolescent panicky mind. As I’ve gotten older my focus has shifted to myself, I can concentrate on what’s important. It’s a wonderful change. The problem was never if I was capable of doing it, it was where my focus was. Congratulations on your shift! It must feel wonderful to have that kind of sureness.

  34. sol Says:

    Hello, my name is Sol, thank you for this post, you never how or when your actions influence another. I am turning 25 this december and I’ve been exposed to the wonderful world of science, astronomy, physics etc..
    Currently I’m attending art school in nyc. I’m reevaluating my decision to pursue an field in art, specifically graphic design. I didn’t realize what a passion I had for science.
    These past few months have given me so much anxiety because I’m afraid, compared to the talented young masses who are well equipped to get into the best programs and those already my age in the best programs, that it’s too late for me to pursue this. That might sound ridiculous. I’m also craving the pursuit of knowledge and education. I would love any advice or maybe to have a discussion with an individual about this.
    As for this post, it’s made me feel a lot easier on the idea of being too old. Time is relative, “time” really doesn’t exist haha, so no it’d never be “too late”
    I see myself among like minds, great minds, sharing creating and thriving.
    I hope I hear from someone ^^
    you can contact me at mollie1289 (yahoo) thank you

  35. José Daniel Says:

    30 years old economist trying to get into a Physics PhD program. I’m freakinly scare to leave my job and go for physics..

  36. Ben Says:

    Bs in physics, ms in math and went to work for nearly a decade. Im now 36 and im starting my physics phd in the fall. I was of course worried i would never get back to where i was, but ive heard so many stories like this that i know your brain never loses its ability to learn and function. Thanks for the story!

  37. José Daniel Says:

    Well, for the record, I was admitted to the Physics PhD program. Now I just have to start it and finish it, lol.

  38. Ravi Says:

    Hi Everyone , I am an Indian guy who will Turn 32 this november 2015, one year ago i stumbled upon and since then i tried to read the lectures by Dr Feynman and things seems so easy to understand and i wish that every school in the world should teach feynman lectures (he was a marvelous teacher ), i am a mechanical engineer, during school days i was not good in physics but somehow passed Engineering Entrance exams scoring good in Mathematics ! But now i have started loving physics again , but i have a good job, a wife ( she earns too but not so much) and one year daughter , my parents can support me for one two years, now what should be route to do a PHD in physics . I have already a degree in Master in Mechatronics from Germany . Shall i apply for Good colleges in Master of Physics ( like CALTECH , Princeton,MIT , … , Uni Munich , ) and if admitted and than score good there and than try for PHDs . As i have heard horrible stories of funding been stopped for PHDs in low rank colleges in Germany ( Uni Siegen) ,USA !

  39. Mohammad Hassan Says:

    I doubt any other field gets this many old(!) romantics. I’m now in my 30s, did undergrad in CSE, working in IT , got somewhat disillusioned with IT ..did masters in finance and economics, pushed towards more math for economics … and now theoretical physics is taunting me. Its not a temporary fleeting feeling, I know that feeling well enough. Those bloody Feynman lectures keep haunting me, keep me awake after any routine day at work …. curse u feynman. Loved the quote in the post .. “It is never too late to become what you might have been”.

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