A few years ago, as an art student, I happened to see an exhibition by Conrad Shawcross, Loop System Quintet, that dealt with the (very) basic concepts of string theory. This moment was the catalyst that would ultimately see me pursuing physics academically. I began reading all the popular science books and magazines that I could get my hands on, watching hours of documentaries and learned that string theory, in part, hopes to reconcile the two great theories of 20th Century physics: quantum mechanics and general relativity. So to understand these theories, with a view to one day being a part of the effort to resolve their incompatibility, has always been the primary motivation behind my studies.
I have since completed my BSc in Theoretical Physics – also at Queen Mary – and am currently a first year EuroMasters student. I decided to apply for the masters course whilst working on my dissertation on the thermodynamics of black holes, during which I had a very brief introduction to stuff like quantum field theory and AdS/CFT correspondence. This taster of working with some of the deeper concepts within contemporary physics left me with no doubts that I wanted to continue my studies. The fulfilment I gained from working on the project also informed my decision to choose the EuroMasters, with its greater emphasis on research, over the MSc.
Having been an undergrad at Queen Mary, I chose to stay here, primarily because the School’s research interests correlate strongly with my own. I also like that it is a fairly small department which means that there is a lot of access to support; if you’re stuck on something you can usually speak with an academic or PhD student who will help clarify any tricky concepts. University isn’t solely about academia, however, and Queen Mary’s location means access to the plethora of experiences that London has to offer; I have been fortunate to attend many exhibitions, plays and concerts that I would not have had the chance to elsewhere in the country – some here on campus.
I’ve always been interested in space. When I was five, most of the few videos I’d watch were the old Star Wars films so you can see why I’d be interested about going to an exhibit about the Soviet space program at the Science Museum. Having lived in London all my life, I’m quite often at the museums in Kensington (Science, Natural History and V&A) because there’s usually something to do there and if there’s not, it’s always fun to look at the dinosaurs! This time though I saw the Science museum had an exhibit on the Soviet space program called “Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age” so I got some friends to come along and ended up having a sort of school trip.
I’m not sure what I was expecting from this, usually you can gage what’s on the inside of an exhibit just from having a vague interest in the subject matter but this was different. This whole venture happened during the golden age of secrecy and misinformation so I didn’t know much about the Soviet side of the space race. Turns out, they got a lot done!
The exhibit is littered with oddly endearing bits of trivia and unheard tales of badassery by the Soviet cosmonauts like the first woman in space (yes, the Soviets did that 20 years before the US) just happening to notice that she was off course to the point where if left unaltered she would have escaped Earth’s gravity, letting ground control know and then deciding to fix the problem on her own anyway. The Soviets also sent dogs into space to test the rockets and actually brought most of them back! Unfortunately, the first dog, Laika, was incinerated on re-entry into the atmosphere, so that’s a bummer but they all got to go to the park before going to space so there’s that!
The sad thing is that all these pioneers are overshadowed by NASA’s achievement of landing on the moon first. It’s even more upsetting when you realise that the
US only funded NASA when it became politically relevant during the Cold War as an attempt to bankrupt the Soviet Union (who were on such a tight budget they were melting cutlery to build their rockets.) In the end this tactic worked with Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative but it all started with Kennedy’s gauntlet of reaching the Moon before the end of the 60’s.
This exhibit honours those courageous people who strapped themselves to knives and forks and flew about faster than sound! I’d really recommend going before it closes in March (March 13th is the last day), even if you’re not particularly interested in space, just to see some of the crazy things that went on in the Soviet Union.
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