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Once a physicist: Elizabeth Waterhouse

What sparked your interest in physics?

Like most children, I had a wish to go to outer space, and in my home town there was a scholarship you could apply for to go to space camp. The year that I applied, it wasn't available, so they gave me a scholarship to an astronomy camp instead. Because of this, I met an amazing mentor, Don McCarthy of the University of Arizona, US, and I developed a passion for astronomy. More recently, I've realized that there are actually a lot of similarities between astronomy and theatre. Astronomy is a nocturnal discipline, and a lot of astronomers are pretty fluid in thinking about signals in terms of both something visual and something acoustic. They move between metaphors of sound and sight, and in theatre, people do those things too.

Did you enjoy your physics classes at Harvard University?

No. But I wouldn't say that I enjoyed all of my dance education either. I valued my physics classes. They were difficult. They were interesting. But they were not that pleasurable. I enjoyed doing research – that was pleasurable for me!

Did you ever consider studying dance instead?

I was educated in classical ballet, but in that field if you want to become a professional, you need to do it early – between the ages of 16 and 18. I decided not to pursue that because I wanted to have a career that was intellectually fulfilling, and I didn't understand what intellectually fulfilling opportunities existed for dancers in America. Also, I was quite happy thinking that I would become a research scientist, and there were a lot of chances to keep practising dance as an amateur, so I enjoyed that balance very much. But unfortunately, you have to pick a profession, and at the time I thought that if I wanted to come back to physics, I could, whereas I couldn't start dancing later – it was something I had to do while I was young. Now, though, I realize that if you delay starting a PhD in physics, it is also really hard to get back.

You're interested in reconciling art and science. What does that involve?

Part of it is personal. I'm trying to reconcile an identity that's been fragmented, one that people have trouble seeing as continuous. But there have also been a lot of opportunities recently for dancers to work with scientists, for example in giving classes to people with Parkinson's disease, where the scientists want to know whether dance training is an effective therapy. In my projects I've often been helping dancers who don't have training in research or science to describe what they do in a way that a scientist can understand.

You're also developing a font based on Albert Einstein's handwriting.

Yes, that's a collaboration between myself and a designer and typographer, Harald Geisler. We wanted to figure out how a handwriting font could be produced, and one day I came across Albert Einstein's handwriting online and thought, "Wow, I had no idea that Einstein had such rhythmic handwriting." It's quite evenly pulsed, symmetric, smooth and flowing. I don't like to go too much into the psychology of it, but it charmed me to get to know how Einstein moved through his pen or pencil. So we've produced a functioning handwriting font – I'd call it a documentary font – based on studying actual documents from Einstein. You can't just copy handwriting like stamps, because the ligatures, or connections, don't come out right. So it's about studying the penmanship and movement, reproducing something similar, and then trying to deal with variation to keep it discordant enough that it seems like real handwriting, but also flowing and similar enough so that it seems to come from the same person, on the same day, in the same mood (see https://haraldgeisler.com).

What else are you working on now?

I'm doing a PhD in dance studies as part of a programme that pairs artists with humanities scholars to write theoretical dissertations. I'm studying the history of partnering in the dance company that I was working for, looking at movement interactions between partners and how this relates to more philosophical questions about how people understand their sense of selves in relation to their movement. The concept does kind of relate to physics, but that's not why it interests me.

How (if at all) has your background in physics influenced you as an artist?

I always feel at home when I'm talking to other physicists, which is surprising to me. Recently, when I was working on this dance and Parkinson's programme, I sat down with a physicist at the end of the conference, and I realized that there is a style of thinking that I miss, or rather that I enjoy when I come back into contact with physicists. When I was at Harvard, they emphasized a lot of collective problem-solving, and this process of sitting down with someone and being able to identify abstract concepts is something that I've brought into the communities of dancers that I've worked with.

Any advice for today's physics students

When I was young I didn't understand that becoming a physicist can mean working in a lot of different contexts. I didn't have any contact with industry or non-university applications of physics, so I think it's helpful for students to get mentorship that helps them see these options or experience them. That way, you can see where your career will end up.