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Science Dreaming Well

by M. D. Sheppeard


Although the names have been altered, this is the true story of my life in 2009. Inaccuracies in the
narrative are due to errors of memory and are not intentional. Character aspersions, on the other
hand, are fully intentional and no undue apologies are pending. The reader is of course free to feel
whatever he or she may do for my unrelenting and old fashioned feminism. Perhaps a writer should
engage the circumstances of the reader. If this is so, I can only do so in the negative sense of
conveying the isolation that I feel from the reader's world, and in remarking that my situation is not
at all unusual for women of my generation, who have tried against all odds, for decades, to pursue
careers in the sciences.

Chapter 1

If this story has a beginning, I do not know where it is. The essence of what happens is not in the
causes of the year to year, or in the details of pivotal days, but in what I and the world have become.
I, too, have my precious delusions, without which my world would not exist, but delusions are
sometimes stripped away from the outside, and there is no return to innocence. Yet, what I battle is
not delusion. I may fight the image that others have of me, yes, but who are they to trust their casual
thoughts over my decades of painful deliberation.
I was a child of the antipodes, used to watching the August winter sun move right to left across the
sky. The sky was still a vivid blue here in the countryside, except when dust storms in the Australian
deserts threw a red tinge into the high westerly winds.
The plains near Christchurch had long ago been settled by the Waitaha people, the first Maori
arrivals, for the hills of the port area mark the southern limit of kumara cultivation. Europeans had
settled in the antipodes from the 18th century, but the future city was only named in 1848, in
England, at a meeting involving an ex student of the college of Christ Church in Oxford. This
student, John Godley, sailed to New Zealand with his family for the express purpose of founding the
new colony of Canterbury.
The University of Canterbury in Christchurch was founded as a college in 1873. This proud institute
of learning was heavily modelled on academic life at Oxford, down to the beautiful stone buildings
in the centre of the city. Unsurprisingly, pioneering women wanted a piece of this action, and the
first woman in the British Empire to obtain a masters degree did so here in 1881.
The prominence of Physics at Canterbury was firmly established, at least in the eyes of the
physicists, by the early experiments of Lord Ernest Rutherford, who set up a basement laboratory in
Christchurch while still a student. Today, several departments share the modern eight storey
Rutherford Building on the new campus to the west of the city. On a clear, smog free day the
western side of the building looks out past the cooling stack, clear across the wide plains to the
foothills of the alps.
For five years I worked at the University of Canterbury towards my PhD in Theoretical Physics,
which I finally obtained in 2007 at the age of forty. I had found myself here in Christchurch after
several years of wandering in the mountains to the south, where I had survived by working as a
waitress, or on the skifields and vineyards, or as a volunteer caretaker for the popular hiking huts in
the national parks.
When you choose to continue living, yet again, you inadvertently promise to honour the
fundamental tenets of the present, rather than those of the still mythical future in which all are given

equal opportunities. A mere smile can be a compromise.
As a well fed Sydney schoolgirl, in the days before the information revolution, I had hoped that a
mythical future would be a reality in my lifetime. The Principal of the girls' high school in Sydney
was a great advocate of careers for women, so although the home science classes were still
compulsory for girls my age, the sewing teacher would conveniently fail to notice my vindictive
lack of cooperation. My mother was somewhat less encouraging.
A complex society cannot guarantee you a job to your liking, because such fairness would not
permit its roles to be filled in the proper measure. When society does not approve of one's choice of
vocation, as is generally the case for a woman in Physics, a chance of success exists only for those
with a titanic persistence. One may also require a complete, potentially lifelong, unrelenting
indifference towards daily suggestions that you choose a more sensible path, better suited to your
meagre talents.
I should have been even more unrelenting. Most of the time I was a good and gentle girl, with a
sweet smile. People loved to tell me what to do, confident that I would nod meekly and do their
bidding. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to most, I had decided on a career in Theoretical Physics
while studying Einstein's Special Relativity, as a very capable and talented fifteen year old. The
combination of an outward meek nod and an inner disgust became an essential habit, at a time when
greasy old men were still permitted to pinch shapely young ladies.
In the same school year I took on my first job as a shop assistant. This job had been foisted upon me
by my reasonably affluent but traditionally educated mother, who was mindful that I should learn to
support myself, at least until I found a husband, and fulfil my duties to society. In those days,
European Australia was a strangely classless society, so my mother had no concern that hard work
would lower my excellent marriage prospects. As far as I knew, all mothers looked after their own
large homes. No good housewife would want to admit needing assistance, except from her dutiful
daughters, and so I learned at a young age that housekeeping was real work.
The nagging was unending and futile, for I never stopped protesting. With tireless encouragement,
my mother would teach my sister and me to bake cakes, entertain guests, make ourselves
presentable, keep a tidy house, iron shirts and polish shoes. She proudly sent us to lessons in ballet,
ballroom dancing and music, while my father often took us all boating, fishing or hiking. We
travelled about the western deserts and went skiing in the Australian Alps. On hot days in summer
we would walk to the nearby beach for a swim or a wander along the harbour rocks, where a clean
environment was not yet lost.
In spite of this paradise, my favourite pastime was slouching in a chair to read. My parents did not
really read proper books, preferring lightweight novelettes and magazines, but they let me join the

small local library when I was about eight years old. Mostly I would read adventures, mysteries and
fantasy stories, losing myself in alien worlds and thoroughly ignoring everyone around me. When I
could, I read about one book a day.
A common sentiment of my generation, amongst antipodeans of an intellectual bent, was a deep
sense of remoteness from the wonderful things that we learned about at school. I longed desperately
to visit the museums of Europe, the great ruins of Asia and the Middle East, and the ski resorts of
picturesque Switzerland. Then, suddenly, the age of cheap air travel was upon us, bringing all such
dreams within our grasp. Eager to leave, in 1985 I spent my final year at high school as an exchange
student in Denmark, where I began to see the far away sights of the world.
My parents were not overly surprised by my teenage decision to study physics, having suffered
years of excellent reports from the science teachers at the girls' school. A long time ago in New
Zealand my mother had skipped a year or two ahead at school, but this was not permitted in my
generation. Boredom and petulance had bred in me a determined laziness. I would read novels
during mathematics classes, but somehow I still failed to achieve a ranking lower than first. When
the mathematics teacher accidentally mentioned imaginary numbers, I pleaded with her to tell me
what they were, which she reluctantly did. The library was not well stocked, and there was no
Some time in 1986, when I received my first university test results, I discovered that out of
hundreds of male peers nobody was more proficient at solving problems in Newtonian mechanics
than I was. What was this? Everyone said that girls were no good at technical problems, and the
boys had studied more technical subjects at school.
At that time all tertiary education in Australia was free, and students were accepted only on the
basis of academic merit. Standards were high, and I had been secretly expecting to make average
grades, balancing the deficiency of my gender with a little above average natural talent. But on
enrollment day an enlightened physics professor, to whom I am eternally grateful, had argued with
me about my selection of mathematics courses, forcing me to enrol at the highest level.
Having spent the first six months at university studying hard, and completing all the assignments, I
returned to my former casual habits. If there were students throwing paper aeroplanes from the back
of the lecture hall, chances are that I was amongst them, even if I was also diligently taking precise
hand written notes. I got into trouble for reading my computer science textbooks a little too closely
and figuring out how to spam people on the fledgling internet. After the first year I would often
throw away 10% of the course mark by neglecting to hand in homework, but I never failed a course.
I listened attentively to the lessons, and the other students would often frown in consternation as I
corrected the lecturer's mistakes.

I was the first person in my family to study at university and deeply confused to find that a science
degree was so easy to obtain. Most students focused on their studies at home, but I had to support
myself by working part time, because my parent's situation disqualified me from the student
allowance. It was clear to me that my family would never support my crazy aspirations.
But then in the final years, when the chance came to do real experiments in the laboratory, I would
often work late into the night, engrossed in the problem at hand. On weekends, the holidays and
some evenings during the week, I would work at a local ice cream shop near the beach. Dressed in a
frilly red pinafore, with sweat pouring down my face, I baked or served ice cream cones.
The reason for my final average marks, in the honours year of the BSc, was not laziness, which did
not come as naturally to me as some might have thought. I was quite determined to work hard that
year, in order to obtain a PhD scholarship. Unfortunately, this resolve was crushed by my parents'
move interstate at the start of the year, soon after my younger brother completed school and entered
the workforce.
Dire financial circumstances forced me to share a small, noisy one bedroom flat with my cruel
brother and his obnoxious girlfriend. Having given up the lucrative ice cream job, I was now living
off the money I earned tutoring school children in physics and mathematics, only a few hours a
week. There was a three hour commute to university each day.
For several days each week I would go hungry, eating only a little chocolate, filling myself up
whenever I was paid. My brother's filthy dishes would pile up in the kitchen, until the slothful
girlfriend screamed at me to clean up. Naturally my brother had never been expected to help with
the housework. Finally, in September, with my parent's aid I was permitted to move into another flat
with university friends. But the damage was done. There was no point trying to obtain a PhD
I was employed as an experimental physicist in a university engineering laboratory, so at least I had
found a way to remain in science. It was a real research job, with responsibilities to manage the
apparatus, collect and analyse data. I stuck with it for over a year, but it was not fundamental
physics and my heart was not in it. Not knowing what to do next, I travelled for a few months.
Returning from overseas in late 1991, once again I told everybody that I wished to return to
university to study further, knowing that they had not listened to the message the first ten billion
times. Despite my insistence, they advised me strongly to be sensible and find a job.
Eventually convinced that a return to starvation would result from further protestation, I found work
as a financial analyst at an investment bank. This would supposedly enable me to assist the
boyfriend in paying off the mortgage on his large house in an exclusive Sydney street, a house that I
had no real desire to live in. There I would host occasional dinner parties, vaguely attempting to

find inspiration in cleaning the kitchen, the spacious floors, the wide staircases, the bathrooms, the
spare bedrooms, the music collection and the library bookshelves. This boyfriend was an early IT
industry winner. For a little while I contributed to his business by programming and helping with
small scale electronics manufacture.
According to the rules that most people play by, my life's cards had already been dealt. I was young,
but I had made my choices. I held a position that many women would envy, with the means to live
extravagantly, but each day I would leave work at ten seconds after five and arrive home in tears.
My whole life had been a protest to which nobody had ever listened.
But now in the wider world, although I could not yet sense it, a ghost was awakening. Behind the
clamour of the backlash against feminism, the shadows of the ghost stirred in countless little
enlightenments. Not every one lacked the courage to dream of better worlds.

Chapter 2

A renewed dedication to the ever awaiting vocation, and a purposeful willingness to starve if
necessary, did not reappear until late 1993. I finally found a way to study physics again by
demanding financial support from the boyfriend, who also continued taking me to fine restaurants,
the opera, and on expensive skiing holidays in Europe, North America and Asia.
That was the year I began studying advanced mathematics. In my undergraduate physics courses,
only traditional mathematical methods had been taught. Even now in the new millenium, the
discipline of physics utilises these traditional methods, and the current conceptual crisis in physics
is compounded by the mathematical ignorance of many practitioners.
The difficulty stems from the profound success of the 20th century's standard picture of particle
physics, which has remained unaltered, at least until very recently, since the days of the experiments
that confirmed it in the 1970s. Modern mathematics has put pieces of this grand theoretical
framework on a solid footing, but the full physical picture remains heuristic and non rigorous. In
other words, nobody understands it at all and the natural language of particle physics is almost
certainly something entirely new.
Meanwhile, the accumulation of decades of interesting experimental results indicates that the
discipline needs a revolution. Unfortunately, to a trained scientist any mention of revolution is a
serious faux pas, and most will commit to conservative investigations with a weary inevitability.
Until now, that is. Nowadays the mainstream stridently claims revolutionary thought for itself,
while continuing to be strangely critical of the slightest sign of individuality in outcasts. The
professional literature today is full of every conceivable crazy idea, except perhaps the right one.
But here I was, back in 1994, listening to mathematical physics lectures, in Australia and overseas,
by some of the world's brightest scientists. Suddenly I was studying the theory of quantum groups,
all about partial differential equations and solitons, various forms of analysis, and the sophisticated
subjects of algebraic topology and geometry. In Sydney, I took formal mathematics courses instead
of working on my thesis, which was supposed to be on standard particle physics.
One of the better lecturers was an Australian algebraic topologist. He made an impression on me by
telling the story of his family, and how they had forced him to abandon his beloved English
literature for a more manly career. This man's formal approach to his subject led me to discover a
whole new kind of mathematics, beyond geometry and algebra, which almost nobody had yet
thought to apply to fundamental physics.
This was the way forward that I had never seen. This, Field X, would be my field of research. I had
always loved the most abstract mathematics, but in my lonely ignorance had not known that there

were people who tried to apply it to physics. This was what I was meant to do. Now I would allow
no one, not even myself, to dissuade me.
For four years I freely studied the current research papers in mathematical physics. I did not expect
to learn everything quickly, but I was still too young to realise how impossible it was to know
everything anyway. At the end of these four years, having done no work on a thesis, I would be
forced to give up my university position.
There were always plenty of people telling me to give it up, some staring at my boobs to remind me
that my talents lay elsewhere. There was a suggestion that I transfer to mathematics, but I could not
write a physics thesis in Sydney on a subject of my choosing. Nobody was willing to supervise such
a dangerous undertaking. This was the wrong city for me to study in, but I had no means to go
The boyfriend finally suggested that we might move elsewhere, but by then he no longer interested
me. I had no choice but to plunge myself into poverty by giving him up, along with my extravagant
home, all hope of future support, and all hope of returning as a professional to a difficult field of
research. As soon as I had committed my life to Field X, I was forced to abandon it. For one year I
sat at home alone doing almost nothing, except reading ancient classics.
Deciding nonetheless to go on living, I moved to the Southern Alps of New Zealand, my mother's
homeland. If I could not be a professional physicist I would have to pursue mountaineering, the
only other thing I could think of that I quite enjoyed. But the true vocation would come calling
again one day, soon enough. Society would make its usual mistake, believing that continual
punishment would eventually teach the lessons they thought needed to be learned, instead of driving
the perpetrator ever further away.
I was working for a living again, as a single woman in an alien world. On a typical morning an
ordinary man, with money but no taste, would sit awkwardly in the cafe chair, with his large belly
against the table. Snapping his fingers, he would sneer at me over his cake and coffee. “My wife
said her latte should be really hot. Make it again, would you?”
I was a professional waitress and there was never a hint of annoyance in my response to a customer,
unless I knew them personally. Often I felt like shaking them awake, explaining to them that they
were wasting their lives, but they would only have laughed, for anyone could see that I was the fool.
Occasionally I would attempt an alternative career, without much enthusiasm. Going hungry once
again, I wrote a dreadful book of poetry and foisted it upon the few friends that I had. I never once
failed to pay my rent, for if the money ran out I would give notice and leave. For many weeks at a
time I would count out every cent and carefully deliberate the respective advantages of a loaf of
bread or two cans of beans. I knew which mountaineering huts had stockpiles of free food and

would walk there alone across the glaciers, sometimes hitching a ride on a skiplane or helicopter.
Finally, in 2002, there was an opportunity to housesit for three months, to look after a family dog.
These days people had the internet at home, so the dog grew fatter as I spent day after day browsing
new research on the online archive. I applied to the local council for private funding, but they said if
I was any good that a university would take me. So I enrolled at the University of Canterbury.
Initially, I agreed to write a sensible thesis under the supervision of a cosmologist. After a few
months, however, both the cosmologist and I had lost interest in the dead end field.
In mathematical physics, only a few names stood out in my chosen Field X. On the more physical
side there were only one or two, in particular the name of Leonard Cotton. In the first of a
remarkable string of coincidences, it turned out that Leonard had once shared an office with the
Canterbury cosmologist and I would become his student for the year of 2003, following him
through Canada and Europe. In order to fund this, the University of Canterbury had given me a
In that year I discovered that even the daunting playground of known names was capable of
resolving itself into a boring loungeroom full of hard working, but sometimes shallow and spoiled,
men. In the same year I also experienced two very serious mountain accidents, the post traumatic
stress of the first leading to an argument with Leonard for which it appears that he, or his wife, will
never forgive me.
On the free fall into the presumably bottomless, wide Swiss crevasse I had mused that dying would
certainly prevent me from working in Field X. On the unexpected landing and survival, some
seconds later, I mused briefly with joy that the likely injuries would land me a disability pension, on
which I could happily continue working indefinitely. Alas, although the injuries were numerous, I
was roughly intact.
It was a special year despite many other difficulties. In the end, Leonard was my only proper PhD
supervisor, in the sense that he took time to get to know me and was generous in his support. This
support was essential, since I was trying to live in Europe and North America on a Kiwi student's
income. As we shall see, hungry and still unable to walk, I returned to New Zealand at the end of
the year.
The ghost of the times had not yet seeped into Physics at Canterbury, where I shared an office with
three young men who were also working towards PhDs in theoretical physics, using conventional
methods in cosmology. There were quite a few women studying Astronomy, and a few in other
areas of Physics, but I was the only one in the theory group.
A successful career in science today hinges on one's publication record. In the distant past I had
produced good work, but there were no formal publications during my PhD years. This was partly

because I was continually bullied into working on research problems other than my own, partly
because I worked in what was then still a controversial area for a physicist, and partly because I was
deeply traumatised. None of these problems were considered. As usual, I was the one at fault.
Physicists did not directly accuse Field X of being controversial, since they actually knew almost
nothing about it. The term they preferred, when it was necessary to express an opinion, was
esoteric. This meant that it was all right for some people to beaver away at it, so long as they made
no claims to be doing real physics. Real physics, as everyone knew, was General Relativity and the
Standard Model of particle physics, written in their original languages. Field X would soon sneak
through the back door of the quantum computer industry, but real theorists knew that quantum
computers were described by ordinary quantum mechanics, mere kindergarten stuff.
There was one fast and poorly written paper that I attempted to post on the online archive, only to
be forced to withdraw it soon thereafter. Then I was still remarkably naïve and uneducated, a fact
that many took every opportunity to remind me, as if I couldn't figure that out myself.
Another of the papers that I wrote in those years is now fairly well known in the field, but remains
unpublished. Yet another, horrific piece of garbage, written by one of my many supervisors, was
submitted for publication against my explicit wishes, with my name on it. This supervisor was
younger than me and had almost no experience in research, having finished his PhD at Canterbury
only a few years earlier. He also lacked the required international experience. He was certain,
however, that I had a lot to learn from him about the correct way to do science. After all, he was
pals with the right people from Australia. Fortunately, I was quite capable of talking to the right
people myself, so when one of them admitted to being a reviewer for this piece of garbage with my
name on it, I agreed with him that, ideally, this paper would not assist my career in any way.
One day, one of my young office mates learned the concept of Least Publishable Unit, and he was
in fits of laughter about it. The idea is to have as many papers as possible on your publication list,
and one way to achieve this is to publish every tiny result in a separate paper. Paper number is the
accepted measure of a scientist's productivity. The young man was also taught to reference high
profile papers he had never read, because searches in the field would then be more likely to turn up
his paper, possibly earning it more official citations. Hiring committees, it turns out, are also quite
interested in a candidate's citation index. This makes it expedient to belong to a club, where
everybody is careful to cite the other members.
The international job situation in fundamental physics is such that most PhD candidates will fail to
obtain a postdoctoral position. In New Zealand there are approximately zero jobs in fundamental
physics. For women, the essential weeding out process must be especially thorough, because it
would not do to encourage them in any way, except by suggesting to them that they start thinking

like men.
For particularly independent women, who are strangely loathe to being patronised, this may be
achieved by the appointment of patronising supervisors, who are highly skilled in the advanced
methods of emotional torture. They are certainly not there to offer any helpful guidance, because
they are supposedly testing you on your ability to do independent research, even if you are not
actually allowed to do independent research.
Directives included statements like, “Pretend you are eighteen years old, and put your head down.”
At no point did anyone admit that I would never get a job after the PhD, so I put up with the torture
naively thinking that I would find a job, somehow.
Those who fail to be discouraged by this process usually end up working on a sensible problem,
specified by their supervisors. In Physics, only the most stupidly persistent attempt to follow their
own convictions, and this choice usually guarantees a participation of yet more academics in
traditional torture rituals. But I could not help working on Field X, having dedicated so many years
to it already, and having already witnessed its growing success.
It was easy to develop a reputation as a nutter. This reputation was moderated initially by the
presence of a sizable group of researchers, mostly students, who were also interested in the same
new branch of mathematics, and by the distant respectability of Professor Cotton. Although there
was already one man at Canterbury working in Field X, it was I who had the broader knowledge,
and I who organised regular seminars on the subject, making the University of Canterbury one of
the first places in the world with a research group who took Field X seriously. Six years on this field
is florishing in many places.
During the first four years at Canterbury I was constantly pressured into working on something that
made no sense to me, and that I strongly suspected was a complete waste of the tax payer's money.
Since I had not yet published journal papers in the new field, it followed that I still had a lot to
learn. Theoretical Physics was still a boy's club and the senior boys, no matter their qualifications,
dictated which ideas were worth pursuing.
I was permitted to stick with Field X physics only because of another coincidence, that the head of
the department had developed an interest in it some years earlier, when a very bright student had
introduced him to it. These academics, who all had wives looking after them at home, had never
studied Field X seriously, or any modern mathematics at all. Essentially, in directing me they were
telling me that I had wasted most of my life, and learned nothing. Rather than making sure that I
had enough to eat, which is the only kind of support I was really hoping for, they would constantly
criticise my poor scientific method, without offering any constructive advice. It is true that my
methodology was poor, but given that most people would be dead if they tried to follow in my

footsteps, I considered that my stress levels were a significant factor that should have been taken
into account. I had not come this far because I was much smarter than other women, because I was
not really. I was here because I had great resilience, probably inherited from some long forgotten
convict or explorer.
My office was always noisy. The confident, London educated male commandeered all the
whiteboard space for his own laborious and archaic calculations in General Relativity. This guy was
supported by his girlfriend, who cleaned up after him at home and earned a good living playing for
the city orchestra, while supposedly working towards her own PhD in physics.
By late 2006, having suffered in the previous three years three hospitalisations, frequent house
moves and perpetual poverty, it was quite clear that I would never earn any sympathy or
understanding from my Canterbury peers.
In 2004, a few of them had attended the spectacular mountain Air Force helicopter rescue where I,
and one other woman, were plucked from a cliffside ledge. We had been trapped without shelter for
eight days of bad weather, after my bad decision to take a difficult route in order to bypass some ice
in the valley. This incident hit the news worldwide, for few people survive under such
circumstances. For weeks afterwards, alone in the house, I writhed in agony with receding trench
foot, where the burnt skin falls away and the nerves in the feet grow back.
It was a solitary existence. In the antipodes, there are no formal classes for graduate students. The
thing that gave me life in 2006, when it seemed the thesis would have no end, was the invention of
blogging. I began regular physics discussions online and met a range of fascinating and valuable
new colleagues, a few of whom I have worked with ever since. This activity finally cemented my
reputation as an annoying crackpot, a reputation soon confirmed by my musings about an
alternative cosmology.
Whatever happened next, the ghost of the times told me that blogging was here to stay. And thanks
to Google Almighty, blogging was free. There were a growing number of good physics blogs. There
were also feminist science blogs, where one could talk openly about the situation for women in
physics without any risk whatsoever of being read by one's colleagues. There were others like me,
dissatisfied with both the rampant sexism and the state of science. It really wasn't all my fault after
all. The invention of the printing press never gave a poor woman this power to publish freely, and
even the printing press had changed the world forever.
We were doing a good job of driving young people away from science, discouraging them with
countless horror stories. But the ones who really care will stick with it anyway. It is better to inform
them of the difficulties ahead, not leave them in the dark. Over the last few years, it seems that the
situation has improved a little. Many institutions now have mentoring programs and compulsory

anti discrimination education for academics. Women have now succeeded at the highest levels in all
but a few fields.
Despite being considered a gifted child, I had not begun life believing that I was especially talented,
unlike the countless young men that surround me. It had been expected that a good education would
find me a stable husband, and that I would devote myself to raising children in a comfortable home.
I am fortunate to come from a lucky country, far from famine and war, but we cannot help but
compare ourselves to those around us.
There was no job for me, and an insufficient number of reasonable references, when I finished at
the University of Canterbury. The London boy found contacts in Europe who would fund a position
for him. That was the way it really worked. The other two young men in the office had succumbed
to the long term torture, and left science. Somewhat alarmed by the discovery that my external
examiner actually liked my thesis, my colleagues reluctantly approved my degree in late 2007.
On graduation day I marched in the traditional parade through the city, past the restaurant where I
now worked as a waitress, where I was grateful for the soup that we were given for lunch each day.
I had once worked, under constant protest, as a financial analyst, and knew that such alternative
career options were out of the question for me. Besides, at 40, my colourful curriculum vitae made
me the epitomy of unemployable. I had sent my CV to hundreds of employers without receiving a
single job offer.
Waitressing was the logical choice. It would keep me fit, without demanding any mental exertion
outside working hours. In principle, this allowed me to spend all my spare time thinking about
In Christchurch the winters bring spells of icy rain from the southern oceans. Students often cannot
afford to heat their houses, so one gets used to the mould on the walls and the ice in the bathroom.
For years I had been forced to share houses with other students, but at the start of the winter in 2008
I was living alone in a single room, waitressing four days a week. This left three quiet days for
research and blogging. The blogging was my focus on the mythical future, although I never wrote a
It was the best arrangement that I could manage, and for a change my landlords were friendly.
However, the prospect of another cold, damp winter spurred my resolve to head south into the dry
mountains again, although I knew that my continued dedication to physics might suffer for the
move. So I took on another part time waitressing job at the cafe attached to the University's Mt John
astronomical observatory, overlooking the glacial Lake Tekapo.
Tekapo is a few hours from Christchurch. As a former member of the Canterbury Physics and
Astronomy department I was entitled to discounted rates on a room in the observers' bunker like

dormitory on top of the hill. It would have been a secluded spot, but for the growing number of
tourists who made their way up the tar sealed road. This good road had been built by the Americans,
who ran a satellite tracking station here in the 1970s.
I left my few belongings in a Christchurch garage, taking only a suitcase to Tekapo. My hard earned
waitressing wages had saved me enough to buy a laptop. Once a week, I would walk down the hill
into the village to buy groceries, my budget allowing me to lunch at the pleasant lakeside Japanese
restaurant, which catered to both the passing tourists and the resident Japanese population. There
were also hot pools at the base of the hill, especially enjoyable in winter when snow often fell. It
was a luxury having a kitchen to use once again. Occasionally the observatory superindentents,
Alex and Pat, would drive to the nearest coastal town to go shopping and I would be invited to join
All in all, Tekapo turned out to be a wonderful, quiet place in which to live and work. With few
astronomers on the hill, the internet connection was good and I could continue blogging, with some
improvement in style due to my unexpected positive change of circumstances. The cafe was unique,
with a significant number of visitors who had never seen the Milky Way before.
But this was not a permanent arrangement. The dormitory was sometimes fully booked, and I could
not stay here forever. As usual, I did not know where I would be living in a few months time.

Chapter 3

As the snow from one heavy fall receded from Mt John, the trail through the forest turned to solid
ice. I laughed as I slipped here and there, on my way to the hot pools. The pools were almost
deserted on weekday mornings, so I could sit there alone and look out across the rocky shore of the
lake. I was not proceeding far with any real research, but the blogging was keeping me amused.
One winter's day a new commenter, named Brent, turned up on my blog. It was immediately clear
that Brent was well informed about Field X, unlike other contributors. His obvious interest in my
unusual combination of two distinct mathematical ideas soon identified him as a particular
researcher at the University of Oxford, which had a large group working in Field X. For years I had
known about this group, and seen their conferences advertised online. Their research focus was
quite unlike my own, but Field X Physics had still made little headway outside mathematics and I
was aware of all such existing groups.
Shortly Brent asked whether or not I would be interested in visiting Oxford for a few months, to do
research. Given my circumstances, this was an astounding question. Could this be the support that I
had always dreamed of? Who knew what a few months in Oxford could mean to a poor country
It did not surprise me in the least that the University of Oxford employed enlightened bloggers, but
I was rightly dubious that the full visa application process would work out. It turns out that as an
antipodean of many generations, under the new work visa rules for the UK I was not entitled to
simply visit England and sleep on someone's couch. The University of Oxford would have to
officially employ me.
I began email exchanges with administrators in Brent's department. Eventually, a suitable job
description was posted on the Oxford University website, relieving me of the impression that this
was all a fantasy created by email hackers. As is common practice today, the UK required all
academic jobs to be advertised, but everybody knew that the best universities carefully tailored the
job description to the person that they wanted. They could hardly remain the best otherwise. So in
October, it appeared that I had simply to wait a few more weeks for the Oxford sponsorship to be
obtained from the Home Office in the UK.
Oxford seemed very far away, as I looked west across the plains to the mountain snows. Cafe work
was tiring and, although it provided more spare time than other jobs, it was difficult to get any
research done. It was the same old problem. I was too alone.
The Tekapo company that I was working for had earned exclusive rights to tourism operations at the
observatory by funding the dome for a new survey telescope, which was currently being used by

Japanese astronomers to hunt for planets. Once winter had passed, and the tourist crowds began to
grow, the company experimented with a new type of tour for the astronomically challenged. This
twilight tour would take advantage of the stunning 360 degree views from the summit cafe and
impose only a short observing session after the consumption of local food and wine, to be enjoyed
whilst watching the sun set over the mountains.
One day in October we were told that a physics professor from Oxford would be visiting Mt John,
staying in the dormitory for a couple of nights. A photo of the handsome professor had appeared in
the local newspaper with an article about one of his University of Canterbury lectures on particle
physics. This event inspired a renewed admiration amongst some Tekapo people for the mysterious
industry of academics at Canterbury. As a member of staff, I was invited on the evening's twilight
tour but, now keen to meet the visiting professor and learn what I could about Oxford, I returned to
the dormitory directly after work.
Sadly, he had still not appeared when my early retiring hour arrived, and the rising astronomers had
seen no sign of him either. The next morning I dressed for work, quickly ate breakfast and sat in the
lounge waiting, as usual, for the dreaded minute that I had to leave for the cafe. Each day I would
sit there on the old sofa, my shoulders hunched, staring out the window, without seeing the dry
grass blowing in the wind.
Finally the Oxford professor, who was about my age, appeared through the door from the dormitory
corridor. He paused by the dining table, brushing a hand absent mindedly through his hair, taking a
backwards step of mock surprise when he saw me sitting there quietly. It turned out that he had
been enjoying the venison and salmon on the twilight tour himself, soon after arriving the previous
evening. This was on the invitation of an astronomy guide, who no doubt felt that the presence of an
Oxford professor would improve the quality of the tour.
Today the professor planned to head to nearby Aoraki for a day walk and he asked me for a trail
recommendation. “I've been around,” he said with a worldly air, to indicate that he was not just
another tourist. “I've climbed Kilimanjaro,” he added, looking right at me to make sure that he had
made an impression.
I nodded casually. I was trying my best, given the tight black T-shirt emblazoned with a barista's
emblem, to look suitably unimpressed, since I had climbed far more difficult mountains myself. I
rattled off an approximate altitude for Kilimanjaro, thereby instantly demonstrating some general
knowledge of mountains, but it seemed that his thoughts were already elsewhere.
The professor was an odd mixture of honesty and polished charm, with what I supposed was the
winning mask of a successful Englishman, at the top of the academic ladder. I liked him anyway.
There was hope that Oxford would be good to me.

I mentioned that I might be heading to Oxford for a postdoc and so he asked about the subject of
my thesis, incorrectly assuming that I was only now finishing it. Without much thought, I said a
little about Field X. Many months later he would confess to having been flabbergasted by my
mention of an obscure piece of particle physics, which he sometimes discussed with a friend who
worked in the field and whose name I knew.
It was tempting to abandon duty and find a sudden urge to go on a walk near Aoraki that day
myself, but that was not my conditioned way. I headed instead to work at the cafe. I was not being
paid for the frequent days of bad spring weather, when the cafe was forced to close due to the
significant risk of people being blown off the hill.
The professor, whose name was Herbert, suggested that we might catch up again that evening, but I
was in my room, already trying hopelessly to sleep, when he returned very late. He came to visit me
while I was working in the cafe, just before he left the next morning, for further hiking advice. It
was difficult to take his hiking ambitions seriously, seeing him browsing a common guidebook, and
his time in the south was quite limited, so I recommended a popular scenic hike near Mt Aspiring,
which would at least force him to drive down the beautiful Matukituki valley. I made no mention of
The pumpkin soup had not turned out well that day and I had been working with a friendly, but
particularly inconsiderate young man. I was not in the best of moods. Herbert wondered whether he
had offended me somehow, which of course impressed me greatly, because I'm sure he's the first
man I have known who ever pretended to worry about such a thing. He was beginning to
demonstrate a remarkable ability to misunderstand me.
I made my dreadful workmate serve customers on his own for half an hour while I sat and chatted
with Herbert, who said that if I made it to Oxford that I must have dinner at his college. Then
suddenly I found myself having to work again and he was off, remembering to shake my hand as
one professional to another. I turned back to the cafe sink, shrugging at the thought that I would
probably never see him again.
My Oxford sponsorship was finally authorised by the Home Office in late November, but this
meant that I now had to apply for a work visa under the new points system. I left the job in Tekapo
and headed for Christchurch, which was the closest place where the UK government could collect
my biometric data. The application was comprehensive, but I saw no difficulty in meeting the
requirements, since I had the required PhD certificate on hand and I had scored the maximum
possible number of points, with a letter of financial support from Brent's department at Oxford. I
also had an invitation to speak at Imperial College in London in early January. Foolishly believing
that the work visa was now a formality, I headed to a friend's place with the idea that the visa would

be issued around Christmas, which meant that I actually spent Christmas day in a fairly traditional
fashion rather than sitting alone in a remote mountain hut as I usually did. With my remaining
money, I bought myself a ticket to the opera in London, for March.
As it happens, the Wellington British were not keen on adapting their visa processing system to the
new rules imposed by their Home Office. It seems that they simply shelved all work visa
applications until their Home Office got so annoyed with them that the New Zealand applications
were all handed to Canberra. I made countless, pointless phone calls, trying to glean some minimal
information about my application, but to no avail. Paranoia is best avoided by ruthlessly assuming
incompetence, but the level of some people's incompetence constantly begs belief. Clearly, one is
not supposed to apply for work visas as a wandering, penniless waitress.
I was depressed and helpless, listening carefully each day for a courier van that never came. Out of
money once again, I found a little casual work, such as dishwashing in bars and hotels. I was
relying on the hospitality of Christchurch friends, but eventually I would give up on the British and
move back to the southern mountain town of Wanaka, at the end of January.
There I went to stay with another old friend, Kathryn. I had met Kathryn many years earlier, when
she picked me up from a lonely spot on the highway. She had been very generous over the years,
and we had enjoyed a few great trips together in the mountains. Now she had a house of her own
and was married to a good man.
My weariness grew, as I saw that I would never see Oxford. Having never thought of visiting
Oxford in the past, and having never dreamed of applying for a job there, naturally I now felt that
all I needed in the world was to see it. I moped about Kathryn's house, working only a little at the
local vineyards, weeding and pruning.
A few weeks before the pinot grapes ripen, heavy pruning serves the double function of funnelling
water into the best fruit and exposing these bunches to the sun. I was like a deformed bunch of
grapes, allowed to live to maturity and then ruthlessly cut down.
Later I was told that Brent had been livid at his plans being thus foiled by the British government,
but Brent never mentioned this to me himself. It seemed that once Brent realised that I had not
properly published any of my work in years, he regretted having given me a job. My curriculum
vitae had always listed the necessary facts but Brent was not, by his own admission, a great reader.
He could never understand how little opportunity I had ever had to publish papers. Starting with the
female name at the top, my CV was something to read between the lines.
In early March, when I had given up hope that I would ever see Oxford, a work visa was finally
issued, with an expiry date in April. I would be too late for the opera in London, but in a state of
shock I found myself in Kathryn's car early one morning heading to the airport in Christchurch,

which was six hours away. There was one expensive bus service to Christchurch, but the timetable
would have delayed me a couple of days. I was determined to make my flight, and get out of
Kathryn's way.
At the airport Kathryn and I met up with another mountain woman, who was working nearby. The
three of us sat drinking coffee in the terminal, all rather stunned to find that my suitcase had
disappeared down the conveyor belt and that real boarding passes had been put into my hands. I
now had enough money in my pocket for the bus fare from Heathrow to Oxford, plus four New
Zealand dollars.
“Well, that's enough for an ice cream,” Kathryn said, with her usual deadpan wit.
“I hope so,” I mused, “although things are expensive over there.”
I drained the last dregs of coffee, hugged my two friends and headed through customs. Fortunately
no mysterious extra taxes materialised as I passed through Auckland, Hong Kong and Heathrow.
The UK customs officer glanced at my Oxford University sponsorship number and let me into
England, almost penniless.
Only vaguely awake, but full of enthusiasm, I pulled a warm jacket from my case and marched
expertly past the other travellers with my heavy trolley. On arrival at the Heathrow bus station, I
casually handed my only twenty pound note to the Oxford bus driver, asking him to let me off near
Oriel College. This was where the administrator for Brent's group, Judie, had arranged for me to
stay. The future was uncertain, but it would pass through Oxford.

Chapter 4

Oxford is known as the city of dreaming spires. The site was already settled in Neolithic times, but
became important only with the construction of a Saxon abbey by the celebate princess St
Frideswide, who died in 727. It is said that St Frideswide cured the blindness of a rejected suitor
with water from a magical well, which formed when she hit the ground with her staff. This well still
exists in the grounds of a small church just outside Oxford. It is the well supposedly taken by Alice
on her journey into Wonderland.
Legend has it that the University was founded by Alfred the Great, who successfully defended
towns against Viking invaders. Alfred officially created the city of Oxford in 911. Over the next few
centuries, the University slowly evolved from a murky past.
In 1167 King Henry II had to ban the English from studying in Paris, forcing many of them to settle
in Oxford, in a loose collection of study centres. One of the oldest existing colleges was officially
founded in 1260 by John Balliol and his royal wife Devorguilla, with the support of a bishop.
Balliol College took in a few poor students, giving them each a living allowance, providing a model
for other colleges to follow.
Merton College was founded in 1264 by another bishop, and University College, with a history
going back to 1249, eventually moved to its current site in 1332. Exeter College was founded in
1314 under Edward II, whose funds also founded Oriel College. New College, dating from 1379,
was built partly in order to replace clergymen who had died in the Black Death. These colleges, and
others, all lie at the heart of modern Oxford. Today there are 38 autonomous colleges at Oxford,
which has spread far beyond the ancient city walls.
In about 1400 the University created its coat of arms, with the words Dominus Illuminatio Mea: The
Lord is my Light, an ancient sentiment from a time when illumination was not an exchange of
billiard ball photons, but something that was created within. I, the observer, would seek truth within
this space.
The first impression one gets of a strange country is often through its public transport. The airport
bus from Heathrow was clean and comfortable, and my anti social temperament relieved to see that
there were few other passengers. A lengthy radio conversation between the driver and his base
established that Oriel College was close to a central bus stop on High St. How fortunate I was, I
thought, to understand the language here.
In far less time than I had anticipated we passed the outer suburbs and moved into a narrow road
lined with elaborate stone buildings, many topped with gargoyles and decorative spires. This was
High St and the bus put me down. Bleary eyed, I jumped out onto the footpath and looked up at the

old stone wall before me, my eye catching a plaque dedicated to the chemist Boyle, who had
worked here centuries before. As I pulled up on the handle of my old suitcase it snapped off,
rendering the crooked wheels almost useless, so I clumsily dragged the case, and my other heavy
bag, along the street and down the nearest cobblestoned side lane. People offered to help and I felt
that Oxford was a friendly city.
Oriel College was the last college at Oxford to admit only male students, which it did until 1985. Its
original buildings no longer exist, but the current architecture goes back to 1620. It was not far to
Oriel College from the bus stop.
My antipodean jaw dropped with wonder and happiness when I glimpsed the first beautiful, historic
courtyard, with its pristine lawn. I stood at the lodge desk, waiting for the porters to confirm that I
belonged there. They were not exactly expecting me, so I was handed a rough map and sent across
the college grounds to the bursar's office, suitcase in tow.
In the farthest alcove, behind a solid timber door, was a dusty office. An industrious Canadian
woman greeted me, and after phone conversations with Judie it was agreed that the department
would forward me a month's accommodation fees for a student room, in a new wing of the college
on the edge of town. The room would be ready tomorrow.
It remained to pay for a single room in the central college for that night. I confessed that I did not
have the money, and tentatively waved a worthless credit card under her nose as some vague form
of security. It was still morning, but the days old sweat and clouded eyes were very noticeable.
Suddenly the kind woman took pity on me, handing me the keys to an astoundingly small, but
comfortable room, arranging with Judie again to get the money tomorrow.
When I finally managed to find the room, suitcase roughly intact, I laughed with joy at the
momentary realisation that I was really there. The tiny English bathroom became an amusing
puzzle, as I tried to shower without spraying water everywhere.
The full reality would take a long while to sink in, making Oxford a place of the world in my mind.
This was a special city, I thought, and everyone here would be thoughtful and kind. How could it be
otherwise? I rested and arranged with Brent via email to meet him in the department later that
afternoon, just to say hello.
Following a basic map, I wandered across High St, past the elegant University Church and
landmark Radcliffe Camera, past museums and colleges, along Parks Rd to the science area of the
University where the department was situated. My instructions were to yell in the direction of a
certain second floor window from the carpark, bringing Brent downstairs to let me in. My tired
voice was weak and hoarse, but eventually a man appeared and motioned impatiently for me to
follow him into the building.

Typically an impatient person myself, I gathered that I had arrived in the Paradise of The Impatient,
so I didn't mind the lack of fanfare. Brent raced me around the labyrinthine corridors, introducing
me to Judie and about ten members of the group, before taking me to the office that I would use.
Judie was the friendly administrator that I had expected, only a little older than me and dressed in a
casual but feminine fashion that would not have her mistaken for an academic.
My office contained six small desks, most of which were being used by PhD students, naturally all
male. This office was my first heartfelt disappointment, but I said nothing. After all, space at Oxford
was presumably valuable. At least the room was clean and adequately furnished. I chose the empty
desk in the corner behind the door. This office was right opposite Brent's office.
I spent my small change on a snack for dinner, too exhausted to worry about being hungry once
again. The next morning I left my bag with the porters at Oriel and went to see the department
administrator, Mark. I had been warned that Mark was a difficult person, constantly doing things to
screw up the group's plans. I found this to be quite untrue. Mark efficiently took me through all the
forms that I needed to sign, waived the key deposit and arranged for part of my first month's salary
to be forwarded to Oriel College. There would also be a little money for food, but unfortunately this
would take over a week to reach my hands. In the end, I would be forced to borrow a little money
from both Judie and Brent, which I could not fully pay back until June.
After officially settling into the office by unloading a pile of papers onto my desk, I returned to
Oriel and constructed a handle for my suitcase from an old belt. I then wheeled the case, with the
other heavy bag across my shoulders, all the way down High St and up Cowley Rd to the new hall
of the college, which was an ordinary set of modern dormitory buildings. I was met by the hall
caretaker, who was suitably impressed with my mobility. He showed me my comfortable room with
its own miniscule bathroom, a luxury that I had not been expecting.
There were no bedsheets and I had no money to buy any, even second hand, but the heating was
overly generous by antipodean standards, so I spent my first month in Oxford trying to sleep on a
small bare bed. The shared kitchen was always a filthy mess and my room faced busy Cowley Rd,
where young people prowled at night, making an awful noise at 3 am each day. But at least I had a
large desk, and some food on my shelf, and was pleased to discover a cheap supermarket nearby.
I smiled all the way to the office on the second morning. There was still a little administrative paper
work to do and organisation of a computer account. The group members typically arrived at a late
hour, but eventually I found Brent in his office. Brent was a plain, western European man, about my
age, with bright dark eyes and a healthy Oxford complexion. He was happy to chat for a while, and
I mentioned my genuine eagerness to work through some of his recent work.
Brent claimed to have suffered in his early years as a physicist, working on non mainstream ideas.

He had obviously made the most of his move to the alternative discipline of the department. He was
recommending that I also leave the physicists for dead, but this I could never do. I had been fighting
this battle my entire life. Alternative disciplines within the physical sciences were just one more
way of giving in.
At first I was impressed by Brent's thoughtfulness and goodwill. After the group went out to a
seminar lunch, and I did not order anything for myself, he offered to lend me some money without
me even having to ask. I thought he must be genuinely concerned about my situation. We could chat
easily and laugh. It was not yet known that I did not understand The System, whatever monstrous
form it took. Neither did I have any desire to participate in The Game, at least by any of the usual
I agreed to give a couple of introductory lectures on standard particle physics, for which I spent
some time refreshing my memory. They went off vaguely acceptably, although I would much rather
have spoken about my own work. Not realising that this was not my work, a guy in the audience
made some very critical remarks. This guy turned out to be absolutely brilliant, and I did not mind
at all that he expressed his opinions tersely. Brent, however, felt it was necessary to come to my
office afterwards and apologise for his colleague's rudeness.
Brent offered me a further four months employment. The money supposedly came from the grant
that paid Etienne, another postdoc in the group. This extra time would give me some real peace of
mind over the summer, and I could not believe my good fortune. Now the department could send
my passport off to the bowels of the Home Office for the required visa extension.
This all happened long before I realised how much influence Brent had over who was employed in
the group, and for how long. Postdoctoral positions usually run for one to three years. It was highly
unusual for someone to be employed on such a short term contract, but I was not considered good
enough for a proper job here. All science postdocs are used to moving from country to country,
never properly settling down, but to me even a single year in one job would have meant an ocean of
stability. Seven months would have to do.
Steven was the senior professor who had originally employed Brent as a postdoc, back in the 90s.
Steven and Brent had published a famous paper describing quantum mechanics in the language of
Field X, so their prestige was secure and their names forever tied together. Steven had originally
obtained a PhD in Philosophy, but his talents soon found him in the sciences. He was a subtle
thinker, friendly and sharp.
Steven was clearly pleased enough with Brent's high productivity to give him free rein on running
the research team, although they shared the supervision of the students. This gave Steven more time
to focus on his own research. He participated in group talks, conferences, departmental seminars

and special lunches, but otherwise we saw little of him, whereas Brent would often pop into offices
to check on small details.
It is perhaps a pity that I did not spend more time talking to Steven, but our backgrounds are so
different that it would have been difficult to find a precise research topic in common. Although the
group focused on physical theory, I was one of few fully qualified physicists currently in the group,
and the only one with any background in particle physics.
Everyone in the group understood that a revolution in particle physics was on the cards. We were
also quite convinced that this revolution would employ the methods of our beloved Field X.
However, because the known researchers in Field X had not yet developed these methods, the
Oxford men were fairly convinced that nobody else had made much progress.
In reality a great deal of progress had been made in rewriting particle physics, in particular in two
subjects outside Field X. One, known as twistor theory, had its roots in an old attempt to describe
General Relativity using an alternative geometry. In recent years, this geometry had come to replace
the standard one in certain calculations of scattering amplitudes in particle physics, to the point
where the sophisticated graphical rules of particle physics could be replaced by alternative rules.
The second subject is known as noncommutative geometry, and its methods are linked to the
modern understanding of renormalisation, which is the process by which one rescales the seething
quantum vacuum to obtain physical results about a few particles. These were both large, very
mathematical subjects.
There was one young postdoc, Julian, who seemed to appreciate the situation. When in good spirits,
Brent would allow Julian to chide him about his mathematical ignorance, and Brent would even
joke about it himself.
Field X was becoming important. Twistor theory and noncommutative geometry were based on
standard 20th century set theory, the axioms of which underlie all established physical theory. The
majority of physicists were convinced that this classical mathematics was good enough for quantum
gravity, but Field X was slowly proving them wrong.
A noncommutative formulation of standard particle physics had been used to predict the mass of the
so called God particle, the Higgs boson, but this prediction was now concretely ruled out by the
accelerator experiments at Fermilab, in the States. Field X was suggesting that the God particle
might not exist at all.
Many physicists had suggested alternatives to the Higgs boson, but a satisfactory explanation could
only lie beyond standard physics, because the Higgs mechanism is responsible for particle rest
masses. In the established framework, the observed particle zoo arises from local symmetry
principles, based on classical spacetime. There is a special symmetry for each of the known forces:

electromagnetism, the weak and strong nuclear forces. Rest masses, however, are the domain of
gravity, for which no quantum theory yet exists.
Anyway, there was a conflict between the real advances in the twistor approach and results in
noncommutative geometry, which tended to assume traditional forms for physical expressions. The
correct theory, whatever it was, would have to resolve such tensions, but these subjects were so
sophisticated that it was like bashing one's head against a brick wall.
Meanwhile, the popular science magazines were promoting the most dreadful garbage, still trapped
in the dark ages of String Theory. Field X had once made the front page of New Scientist, but few
journalists would bother to write about something so obtuse. The public understood that change was
coming to physics, but they were being terribly misled about its true state of affairs.

Chapter 5

The walk to the office from the Cowley Rd hall passed many central Oxford landmarks. At first it
felt foreign like any other old European city, as I stumbled on the unfamiliar cobblestones. There
was a grotty liquor outlet just before the Cherwell bridge, across which Magdalen College, which I
had never heard of before, showed a proud face to High St. Some days I then took the Queen's lane,
which wound its way beneath the high gargoyled walls of New College, and under the bridge of
sighs. Other days I carried on further down High St, turning right at the University Church.
In a schedule utterly unlike my colleagues, I would rise at 5.30am to appreciate the morning peace
and quiet. Arranging an internet connection at the hall proved to involve English complications, but
there was an online computer near the entrance for residents to check their email.
There were three other regular users of my office in the department. The two young European PhD
students, Robert and Rafael, were obviously talented, but had a slightly annoying liking for inane
chatter. They were reasonable boys and I liked them. Rafael was a social success at his college, and
many a day was spent perfecting a college website or facebook photo. Robert, who had studied
Field X in London, was in danger of toying with too many research ideas at once, much as I had
There was also an American PhD student, John the dude, whom one could not help suspecting of
graduating from Harvard as much with the help of his family's money as with innate talent,
although he had some of that. I was pleased to see that John had a real physics background. He
seemed friendly enough at first, and in my simple mindedness I was determined to like anyone who
was friendly, despite the warnings I was given about his dubious character.
Instinctively, I was a little disturbed by the ease with which Brent complained about the weaknesses
of other members of the group. As a cold hearted, cynical woman, I realised that he would soon be
doing the same with me, no matter what I did, but I put these thoughts out of my mind. In a strange
land one focuses on the needs of the present, prepared for all eventualities.
After the first few days I spoke to Brent only occasionally, as I was given the impression that he just
wanted me to get to work. Happily, I would return quietly to my desk. There was plenty to think
about. I immediately began studying Brent's latest papers, honestly determined to make a valuable
contribution to the group's research, but knowing that it would take a month or two to settle into a
completely new routine, not to mention a reasonable diet. I was surprised to find that I could even
ignore the noise around me, motivated by my new found hope.
I browsed the Oxford website, delighted to find so many seminars of interest to attend, mostly in
other departments nearby. Brent told me not to waste time going to seminars, but such a warning is

a bit like telling a starving, caged dog not to run when it is finally released into a rabbit infested
field. I had never worked in a place with so many seminar opportunities, and I was almost always
There was no question of my dedication to the research, but I had almost no background in the main
discipline of this department. Brent hinted that I should make an effort to learn some of the jargon.
There were two conferences early on, which would provide a perfect opportunity for this. These
conferences turned out to be a good opportunity to meet Brent's regular gang of friends, who went
to the same conferences as each other, year after year. A few of the characters were interesting, and
doing good research.
The new jargon was too much for me. I was already an avid reader of many academic subjects, and
it was simply impossible for me to add too many more. If I could publish in physics or
mathematics, there would be no good reason for me to write conference papers in Brent's peculiar
style. Brent told me that it was all about having a community, but this community was not mine.
There were numerous other graduate students in the group, all supervised by Brent and Steven. My
favourite was young Anton, a confident, well built mathematician with a heavy Russian accent and
a very beautiful wife. Anton had a mathematics background and was in the process of steering the
group in a more promising direction. He was writing an interesting report, but for one of those
mysterious silent reasons I never saw a copy of it.
The gentlest and kindest student was Pablo, who had a more philosophical bent. Judie liked to laugh
at Pablo about his fixation with obtaining quality deli goods, which were often sent to him from
Europe. Then there was Brad, an English lad, who trained hard in the university parks and liked to
dabble in mountaineering. He was finishing up his thesis, and considering a career in the military.
Brent's favourite was probably Adam, a talented and diligent American with a gentle southern
drawl, who had earned himself a nice office on a higher floor, which he shared with the absentee
Rex, a Scottish postdoc. There were two other Englishmen and another Scot, but I hardly ever saw
them. It was rumoured that one occasionally appeared in the corridors late at night. Another had a
desk in my office, but must have worked elsewhere. Callum, the Scot, was a good natured lad with
a refreshingly worldly background, and we usually saw him at group seminars. There were also a
few masters students who were thinking of working in Field X. This was Brent's army. Apparently,
Brent could find no talented young women in the field.
After a few days my university staff card was issued, giving me in particular free entry to all the
colleges. At first, I could only think of the opportunity I now had to do some work, so I didn't
wander around very much. There was plenty of time for that. I disliked the crowds of tourists, the
beggars and the visitors that always filled the narrow streets. In contrast to the Southern Alps,

everywhere was crowded and noisy. Robert, a Londoner, could not understand how Oxford could be
perceived as anything but quiet. I soon saw that Oxford was not utopia. It was a city of social
contrasts, difficult for a simple minded stranger to fathom.
Eventually I discovered the countryside west of the city. The fertile fields beside the Thames have
been grazed for a very long time. The founder of Oxford, King Alfred, gave the low lying pasture
near the river to the Freemen of Oxford, whose right to use the land is written in the Domesday
book of 1086. Preserved for so many centuries, these meadows hold important archaeological
remains, such as Bronze Age burial mounds. They are only a short walk from the city centre. I liked
to take the path across the centre of the meadows, carrying on over the rough ground after the path
petered out.
A little further north, on the other side of the river, lie the ruins of Godstow abbey, destroyed by
Henry VIII. The abbey was built after the land was bequeathed to Benedictine nuns in 1133. It was
later extended by King Henry II, whose mistress the Fair Rosamund was there briefly before and
after her death. The locals admired Rosamund, who was far more English than Queen Eleanor.
King Richard I, the Lionheart, and King John were the younger sons of Henry II and Eleanor, the
independent Duchess of Aquitaine. They were both born in the palace in Oxford, the site of which is
marked by a small plaque at a busy roundabout. Richard the Lionheart, who reached the Holy Land
in 1191, attempted a bizarre truce with the Moslems by proposing an impossible marriage between
Saladin's nephew and his own widowed Christian sister Joanna, Queen of Sicily, a devotee of the
murdered St Thomas Becket. Henry VIII would later order the destruction of all images of St
Thomas in England, but a stained glass image from 1320 survives in the cathedral at Christ Church
King Richard was accomplished at losing English money, but later monarchs did better. For an
unbroken thousand years, English plunder has held up the walls of Oxford. Even when the mighty
British Empire died, the remaining spoils of centuries kept clean these stones.
But today, the ghost whispered that this time was ending. Who would hold up these crumbling walls
for the future? This was no longer an English city, but a monument for the world, where the
confident day trippers argued with the porters at Christ Church to let them in after hours. The
English had a class instinct and would obey their new masters, whoever they were, though the
commands might not be welcome. Where else could they go? These were the people who had
stayed for the thousand years, watching countless generations leave for distant shores. Like a few of
my ancestors, I too would be forced to leave this place, sadly knowing that everything has an end.
After I was issued with an Oxford email address, I received an invitation from Herbert to visit his
college, one of the central old colleges, established centuries ago and with its own personal part in

British history. He was rather busy, so we agreed on lunch, which started promptly at 1pm each day
during term.
I was extremely nervous as I stood waiting for him at the porters' lodge. I had put on weight since
giving up waitressing all those months ago, and my current low budget diet was not conducive to a
healthy complexion. That is, I looked ten years older than I had a year before, but I was trying very
hard not to care.
Of course I was immediately disappointed with Herbert, who seemed far more distant than he had
in Tekapo. Perhaps he had been informed, somewhere along the way, about my sorry character. I
would never know the things that people never said. Wearing the habitual, conditioned manners of
an unintimidating antipodean lady, I became polite and vacuous, knowing that this would only
further encourage the men's limitless ability to underestimate me.
Herbert was very apologetic about the construction work in progress at the college, as he led me
through the old corridors to the modern lunch room. Busy academics were helping themselves to a
simple but generous buffet lunch.
“The venison is probably not up to New Zealand standards, I'm afraid,” Herbert remarked, with his
deliberate gentlemanly air. He was right about that, but I really didn't mind. Perhaps I was supposed
to be impressed, but nobody seriously expected English food to be competitive.
With an expert eye I observed that the catering was well managed and heavily serviced, which is to
say expensive. I was quickly introduced to about ten other local academics, also fellows of the
college, but it seemed that many were in a rush to finish lunch and return to work. Herbert was
determined to do his duty, playing the good host, but I was making it a little difficult with my
laconic nervousness. We sat beside another experimental physicist.
Perhaps I imagined it, but for a brief moment Herbert seemed unconsciously indifferent, like any
other condescending man. I was annoyed, not least because I did not feel at all out of place, having
spent my youth with people who could eat ten Herberts for breakfast.
After racing through two or three courses one typically retires to the warmly furnished senior
common room, to finish lunch with an espresso coffee and biscuit. There Herbert was kind enough
to introduce me to the other fellows as a Real Theoretical Physicist, prompting a fashionable
historian to remark, “So not one of those string theorists, then.”
I cheered up when Herbert showed me the main hall on the way out, with its dark panelling, the
ubiquitous high table and the stunning portraits, two of such general historical importance that I
instantly recognised them. I would visit this college again on a number of occasions, but I never sat
at the high table in this hall.
Later on I did enjoy dinner at high table in another old college in the centre of Oxford. In one of

many departments of interest to me I ran into an elderly Oxford professor, Kenneth, whom I had
previously met at conferences in Australia. He had an Australian graduate student, a woman. I was
quite interested in his line of research, although his discipline was different to mine. We chatted
easily about a range of topics over lunch at his college one day. In the competitive world of
intercollege rivalry, Kenneth's college was doing fairly well.
Although autonomous, most colleges follow the same system for the encouragement of academic
discussion. Amongst the priveleges of a college fellow are places for guests at meals. In general, the
more senior the fellow, or the wealthier the college, the more guest meals will be available to them.
Guests are supposed to be interesting people, able to join the, in principle at least, fascinating
discussions that give the college its fine reputation. Sometimes they are simply the wives and
husbands of the fellows. Unfortunately, in these times of academic specialisation there is little cross
disciplinary talk. The conversation at the street kebab carts was often just as interesting.
Kenneth was sufficiently advanced in years to hold a senior position at his college, which meant
that he presided over dinner at high table. The guests initally meet in the common room, just before
dinner, where they are introduced to the other fellows and guests over a glass of sherry. I was overly
conscious that my new second hand jacket smelled a little musty, but I had dressed appropriately
enough in a simple black dress with some ornamentation and a brand new pair of shiny black shoes,
with heels higher than I had worn in decades. The friendliness of the crowd helped me to relax. As
is often the case in life, the more prestigious the venue, the less snobbish the crowd.
There were a number of medical people and a few other scientists. The seating arrangement for
dinner was printed out and shown to everyone in the common room, addressed formally by their
proper names: doctors, professors, sirs and so on. Punctually at seven, we filed into the hall in the
correct order, the fellows wearing their academic gowns. Kenneth sat at the head of the table, and I
to his right.
Nobody took any notice whatsoever of the students, quickly eating their basic meals in the hall
below us. It took us a few hours to work through the savoury courses. Kenneth told me some of the
college's colourful history, stretching back a good part of a millenium. The food at this college was
quite good, and my wine glasses were continuously refilled by the very professional waiters.
The high table group always moves downstairs for dessert, where we all sat at another long, heavy
table, laden with platters of fruit, turkish delights and other goodies. Decanters of spirits and dessert
wine were continually passed, strictly clockwise, around the table. It was quite late when we finally
moved upstairs to the now familiar common room for coffee. Kenneth was a true gentleman from a
generation that insists on walking ladies home, and he showed no impatience as I hobbled slowly
along the cobblestones in the wobbly heels.

Chapter 6

For many years there were two major approaches to the fundamental problem of constructing a
quantum theory for gravity. The first was String Theory, a grand edifice of classical geometry,
which was taken as gospel until recently by the majority of mathematical theorists. Its origins lay in
an extension of 20th century point particle physics to stringy objects. In contrast, a second packaged
set of ideas was based on principles from classical General Relativity, combined with basic
concepts from quantum physics.
Both of these failed approaches had a very serious and obvious flaw. A quantum theory of gravity
requires new physics, and new physics has never come from the application of wishful thinking to
long established methods. Unfortunately, the use of established methods makes publishing papers
easier. Many bright young string theorists are currently moving into other, genuinely interesting
research areas, with the assistance of their older colleagues. Meanwhile, the people who had been
correctly critical of these approaches for decades are still mostly ignored.
The one mathematical subject that has made notable headway in physics in the past ten years,
independently of any given theoretical bias, is Field X. There are now academics in a few Physics
departments who teach some aspects of Field X in their courses. However, there are as yet almost
no specialists in Field X employed by Physics departments, where the majority insist on employing
traditional methods, and funding commitees have no idea what Field X is about.
Brent and Steven lead one of few established groups worldwide who concentrate on the physical
aspects of Field X. Brent maintains his interest in physical applications, but he does this without
being a true member of the Physics community, having sacrificed his place as a physicist in order to
work in another discipline.
In April, Brent headed to a physics institute in Canada for a three month visit. This independent
institute had been aware of Field X since its foundation about ten years ago, but was only now
reluctantly admitting a need to promote it. Brent and I would not have a chance to work together
after all.
While he was away, I naturally lost my resolve to focus on research questions specific to Brent's
viewpoint. There were no written rules about this and it made much more scientific sense for me to
pick up on some of my own related, but still undeveloped, ideas. I began reading a wider variety of
papers once again.
This break for freedom inevitably occurs a month or two after I enter academia after a long break.
The initial gratitude and modesty gives way slowly to a more realistic appraisal of the research in
question, and a sordid recollection of the reasons why I am what I am. I was older than Brent, and I

knew better than him what problems I should be working on. The new direction was still within the
guidelines of my employment contract, and should probably have been welcomed.
In the modern world, one's measured productivity in science rarely improves upon the gaining of
worldly experience. My mind could never be as young and fresh as the minds of those around me,
people who had lived in the ivory tower all their lives. They know this, and to some of them this
innocence is an essential aid to concentration. Once you have lost any battle at all, and I had lost
many, there was no point in rescuing you, because you could never hope to compete on the
measures that mark their success.
Women in physics know they are not permitted to complain. After decades of silence, we had tried
to complain. The few who succeed are held up as proof that there is no gender discrimination, and if
there is no discrimination it follows that your problems are all of your own making. I continually
apply for new jobs, but I am truly wasting my time. Without a faultless curriculum vitae, along with
excellent references from the right people, no one gets a job in physics. She may be ten times more
valuable to the group's research than the fresh, young man who takes the job, but it is the young
man who will be seen to have potential. My generation was being annihilated.
Brent had not bothered to direct me in any specific way, although it was clear that he considered
himself my superior in some absolute sense. His method of government was to occupy his office at
certain times of the day, and let the boys visit him whenever they had something intelligent to say.
He seemed to think it was obvious that I should do something subordinate to his own research, as if
there could be no question that my own ideas were inferior, or that my future would depend upon it.
In the current culture, I now realised, there is an expectation that a postdoc will do whatever their
supervisor wants them to do, but Brent's group did not officially operate in this fashion, as far as I
could tell.
When it was my turn, and Brent was away, I gave a casual group seminar on a topic of general
interest to the group, related to my current research. Young Julian, in fine humour, introduced me as
a woman who could kill a man with a single blow, so I gathered that a Kiwi colleague had been
telling him about my karate skills. There were various small seminar rooms in the department,
providing space for people to work together, but nobody seemed interested in my peculiar interests.
No one in Brent's group was affiliated with an old college. Steven and Brent were fellows at a large,
modern college on the northern edge of the city. I visited this college just once, when the only other
female scientist in the group, Mahtab, arranged a ladies' luncheon. Mahtab seemed happy, initially,
to invite me on outings. I was determined to like Mahtab, who was an attractive, young Iranian
postdoc. She was not a physicist, and we had absolutely nothing in common, but I could see that she
was very talented and she had a wonderful sense of humour.

It turned out that Mahtab was Brent's wife. I went to their house one evening while Brent was still
around, when Mahtab's parents were visiting from Iran. It was clear that Mahtab, and not Brent, had
invited me, but the novelty of going to a dinner party made me forget all the difficulties ahead.
Brent and Mahtab owned a small house in the suburbs, easy to reach by bus. Mahtab's parents were
well educated and had once visited Australia, so Brent asked his father in law what Australia was
like. The man pondered a moment, how he might sum up a country in a few words, and he finally
said, “It is not modern. They like family outings.” These words exactly characterised one of the
differences between Mahtab's success and my failure. Her parents were proud of what she had
become. My family might say that they were proud, but they would leave me to starve, truly
wishing I was someone else.
Being a beautiful young Iranian, Mahtab appeared to think that coolness entailed a punk fashion
sense, a taste for hard rock, heavy drinking and smoking. Brent was a continental European who
liked to insist that this was the only way to live. The group's general idea of a social occasion was a
late night in a noisy pub. I did not discover this for two months, because nobody organised such an
outing after my arrival. One day I mentioned this to Julian, and he was dutifully apologetic.
At the start of April my first monthly paycheck had still not arrived, due to the continual difficulties
that the Oxford payroll office had in finding perfectly functional foreign bank accounts. There were
rumours of financial difficulties at the top, and I wondered if this was how they dealt with them.
I didn't have enough money to pay rent anywhere, so I wheeled the old suitcase into the office and
put it under my desk. I felt there was no one in the group with the capability of sympathising with
my situation.
In the end I camped in the office for almost a month, without anyone finding out. My food budget
was very tight but I could survive on it, given the numerous kitchenettes in the department with
occasional free food and nominally free coffee and tea. Used to poverty, I thought nothing of
helping myself to the gourmet teas and hot chocolate, for which one was supposed to pay. If a
stranger frowned suspiciously at me, I would give them my best, innocent smile. I allowed the
coffee mugs to pile up on my desk, because the catering staff would run around to collect them.
People ran in the nearby park during the day, so I knew there had to be a functioning shower in the
department. I soon located one on the second floor, not far from my office. Once a week, on the
weekend, I would carry a bag of washing down Cowley Rd to the self service laundrette.
This, not unfamiliar, routine was simple enough. In order to outwit my office mates, I would often
work late and then go down to a basement lecture room to rest. It had been fun exploring the
labyrinth, and choosing the best room. It was quiet and dark down on the lower level, and out of
term nobody ever came by at night. There were fixed arms on the lecture seats, so I had to lay down

on the floor. Sleep was impossible, because the spring nights were very chilly and my down jacket
not sufficient to combat both cold and hunger. But I had been in far worse situations, and was
looking forward to a brighter future. At around 5am, the only hour when the building was totally
deserted, I would return to the office and gather my towel and clothes and go to the shower.
In the afternoon there was usually a chance to grab a nap in an unused seminar room on the second
floor. There was a cushioned window seat, and one could draw the curtains across the high windows
to hide from the passing double decker tourist buses. This room had a fine view of one of my
favourite Oxford chapels. One lunchtime I wandered across to sit alone in the rear of the chapel,
looking up at the impressive mosaic walls. A college organist came in to practise, giving me a grand
private recital.
In the office, Robert and Rafael took to opening the windows more, no doubt to clear the air, but
they said nothing. There was concern that Robert too might sometimes be homeless, but his family
lived in nearby London. Out of term, they spent little time in the office anyway. In the early
summer, I often had it to myself, and then I enjoyed chatting to Robert and Rafael when they were
there. Although I am quite used to spending days, or whole weeks, entirely alone, some human
interaction is somehow essential, at least if I am to maintain some semblance of being the same
species as the people around me.
There were only two resident postdocs officially in Brent's group. Young Julian, an Oxford
alumnus, had recently completed his PhD in London, but was openly permitted to do his own
research, since he had his own military funding from the States. Brent had not hesitated to create his
position. The military knew that Field X was promising.
Julian and I decided to organise an interdisciplinary seminar series together. He took me to his
college for lunch, where we could discuss it. His modern college was a short walk across the park,
and served the ubiquitous buffet lunch in an airy cafeteria. Eventually we decided on a seminar
format, including tea and biscuits, and arranged a number of excellent speakers from other
departments, including Kenneth.
The seminar series ran during term in our department. There were so many seminars in the science
area that I was not too disappointed at the low attendance level. At least this was a beginning. One
of the biggest problems in this interdisciplinary field is the lack of communication between over
specialised groups. This problem was now recognised by the UK government, which was
supposedly directing current funding into interdisciplinary research.
The other postdoc was a Canadian, Etienne, whose wife Catherine was pregnant with their first
child. They rented a modern house out in the suburbs. Etienne was tall and solidly built, and as pale
as a ghost. On a warm day he would rush about with the sweat pouring down his face. Etienne had

not been in Oxford for very long, and everyone suspected that the hard working Brent resented
Etienne's commitment to his family, when he should be more appreciative of the Oxford position.
Still, Etienne had made progress on an interesting theorem recently and written papers about it with
Brent. He had a decent office on the quiet fourth floor, but would often work whilst wandering
about the city streets. For this reason I did not get to know him in the beginning.
Everyone in the group, except me, was working on the specific concept within Field X that
described quantum mechanics. I had gone to a great deal of effort in my PhD thesis to explain why
we needed to branch out into more general concepts, but nobody here except Brent had ever
bothered to read anything that I had written, and Brent had merely skimmed the surface.
The plan was for everyone in the group to visit the physics institute in Canada for a week in early
June, when the institute would host their first conference on Field X. This was the place that Brent
was visiting for three months and he was one of the conference organisers. I was given the funding
to attend and, as one of very few postdocs in the field, invited to speak.
As it happens, I had spent six months at this institute as a student, in its early days back in 2003.
Leonard Cotton had been visiting from the States, and this is where I originally went to meet him.
Leonard and I were already working in Field X, although there was almost no interest in it amongst
the physicists at that time.
In those days one of the senior academics at the institute, who worked on one of the standard
approaches to quantum gravity, would call all the string theorists together about once a week and
explain to them that they had it all wrong. Lacking all mathematical sophistication himself, this man
completely failed to convince them that he knew any better. Leonard and I would stay out of these
ridiculous debates, thus making it clear that we suspected we knew better than the lot of them. I
kept mostly to myself, still struggling with a return to academia after a long break. Now in 2009, I
was not expecting to be welcome in Canada.
The Game mattered in this business, like in any other. Men working on rival theories would laugh
and enjoy life together, knowing that the other thought them misguided. So long as you belonged to
the club, you would be welcome at the picnics. Today Field X was flourishing, but its competitors
had not yet admitted defeat. They were slowly steering their research towards Field X, and at the
same time trying to write up their results without mentioning it. I could see there were good reasons
for making an effort to communicate clearly, but the final goal of predicting real world results
appeared to have been forgotten by all sides.

Chapter 7

The museums along Broad St and Parks Rd could be enjoyed free of charge. The History of Science
museum was hosting an exhibit on early telescopes, and had a wonderful permanent display of
astrolabes and other old navigational instruments. I bent down to the floor to peer at the ill defined
antipodes on an early globe.
At the Natural History museum there was an anniversary exhibition on the life of Charles Darwin.
The awkward portraits of indigenous antipodeans lined the wall past the door to the very room
where the theory of Evolution was famously debated in 1860, chiefly between the scientist Thomas
Huxley and the notoriously eloquent Bishop Wilberforce, who had studied at Oriel College.
When my first paycheck finally arrived in my New Zealand bank account, in late April, I was just
barely in a position to find somewhere nice to live. The first month's advance was paid back to the
department and I carefully put aside some bond and rent money, leaving only a little for food.
Relying on a foreign account the whole time that I was in Oxford, I was always carrying around
disturbingly large wads of notes in order to save on transaction fees. Opening a British bank
account without a proper address appeared to be out of the question.
No bank notes, or even copper coins, were given to the street beggars, some of whom could be
heard asking for money to pay for a room to stay in. It was a warm summer, I thought. I could have
recommended a number of fine campsites along the Thames, where they might have stayed. Even if
free camping by the river was technically forbidden, I was adept at hunting down undiscoverable
corners of bush and forest. The beggars did not all target the tourists or business people. There was
one guy, always wearing black leather, who would position himself at a site where almost all
passers by were scientists. He had clearly been misinformed about scientists' salaries.
There were also immigrant women beggars, holding small babies, who spoke not a word of English
and made their demands with rough cardboard signs. At a glance it was clear that they were
currently better fed than I was, and this was not a form of reproduction that I had any intention of
I realised that the presence of beggars was probably a symptom of the ancient class system, where
the poor would be assisted so long as they knew their place. It reminded me of India, except that the
beggars here were much fatter. No doubt there were some genuinely hungry, and hard done by,
beggars on these streets, but these seemed to be in the minority. I had no way of telling who was
who, since I came from a place with no beggar culture at all. Thinking of my own desperate future,
I maintained a purposeful and callous indifference.
Under the English Vagrancy Act of 1824, it is illegal to either beg or sleep on the streets. Many

people are prosecuted under this Act today. It states that every person wandering abroad, or placing
himself or herself in any public place, street, highway, court, or passage, to beg or gather alms …
shall be deemed an idle and disorderly person … and subject to section 70 of the Criminal Justice
Act. I wondered what the regular Oxford beggars did to keep themselves out of jail. At least the
bush near the Thames was not covered by the Act. In England, I guessed that undesirables had
learned a few lessons since the days when they were shipped off to Australia.
This Vagrancy Act was inherited by the British colony of New Zealand, which was founded not
long thereafter. There it appears to be fully enforced to this day. Homelessness is a serious problem
in New Zealand, as elsewhere, made worse by its undercover nature, which hides its true extent. In
principle, extensive social services are available to all citizens, but in practice the bureaucracy has
efficient ways of excluding undesirables, preferring to give charity to a rich businessman with a
cash flow problem. I guessed that the social services here had similar issues.
Browsing the University Gazette I found a boarding house, run by an old local couple, in a quiet
street only ten minutes walk from the office. The same day that I first managed to obtain wads of
cash from the ATM on St Giles, I moved into a room there. The house was already fully booked for
three weeks in May, so I would have to move out again for a while, but this would be my home
until October. Home. What a strange and wonderful thought. It was difficult to imagine what it
would be like to have a place to call home. Maybe the world would change this summer, and let me
Mr and Mrs Laughlin had both taught at Oxford colleges and now let out four rooms of their large
Victorian house. Mr Laughlin gave sermons at a city church, which was known to help the
homeless, and Mrs Laughlin was a friendly society lady. They had numerous grandchildren. The
guests of the house were expected to eat breakfast together at one end of the large table in the
dining room, which was decorated with family portraits, shelves of wonderful books and a variety
of silverware. The old floorboards were creaky and the bay windows, decorated with Mrs
Laughlin's orchids, looked out across the courtyard to the quiet street.
Mrs Laughlin insisted on being called Mrs Laughlin, explained Clara, the housekeeper come
political science graduate student. As it happens, Mrs Laughlin had grown up in New Zealand, a
good Catholic girl just like my mother, which explained the familiarity of her traditions, from the
napkin rings and polished silver to the boiled eggs on Sundays.
Happily, I would climb two flights of carpeted stairs to my cozy room. Each room had two narrow
beds, a table, chairs and ample cupboard space. The old fireplace stood unused beneath the
knickknacks on the mantlepiece, since there was now central heating. As was my habit, I
immediately turned off the small fridge, which would remain unused. I found nearby mechanical

noise disturbing, but decided to tolerate the loud ticking from the mantlepiece clock.
Clara had a room near mine, filled with books. In the mornings, whilst running about the house,
Clara would practise her elocution lessons. This sometimes had to be explained to the visitors at
Atsuo was the other long term guest. He was a Japanese humanities professor on a year's sabbatical,
keen to improve his English. In a discussion on Chinese astrology we discovered that we were
exactly the same age, and shared a similar sense of hopelessness about meeting the so called right
person. We also had a common interest in classical concerts in architecturally spectacular locations,
such as the University Church.
As a full member of staff at Oxford, I was often considered the head girl at Mrs Laughlin's
breakfasts, which meant that I sat at the head of the table and made sure that the visitors felt
welcome. The many guests who passed through were usually academics from far away, taking
advantage of their freedom to visit the city of Oxford without necessarily having any affiliation to
the University.
By late May I had walked far and wide and I knew the city's streets. The gardens were in bloom and
I had a soft, warm bed to sleep in. I began to find the quietest, greenest corners of the gardens in the
old colleges, from Magdalen to Worcester. Although many of Oxford's treasures were hidden away,
my card would allow me entry almost everywhere except All Souls College, which was so
prestigious that it did not admit students at all.
One day, in the fair world where I am taken seriously, I will perhaps be a fellow of New College,
also known as the College of St Mary. Founded in 1379 by the Bishop of Winchester, New College
has extensive grounds, and one of the most beautiful chapels. A preserved section of the original
city wall lies at the edge of its gardens, and the antechapel hosts spectacular medieval stained glass
The motto of New College is plainly, Manners Makyth Man. Years of poverty and hard work had
worn away the fine manners that were drilled into me as a child, but one day I might find them
again. When I am a fellow there, I will live in my private quarters, do a lot of research, interact with
the young students, and eat dinner at high table twice a week during term. I will be neat and clean,
productive and happy. Ah, dreams.
My financial troubles still prevailed, but now there was a little money to buy second hand clothes. I
relished the novelty of looking through the assorted variety of garments in charity stores, and if I
was ever wealthy again I would still shop this way. With a large student population, Oxford had a
fantastic selection of second hand stores. As a buxom physicist from a country where a fashion
sense is entirely unnecessary, it was essential that I discard the tatty T-shirts for a few decent shirts

and blouses. In order to minimise the professional boob staring at work, I would have to make the
usual conscious choice of a strictly unsexy style, which is to say the frumpy geek look, much in
vogue in these parts. I was never mistaken for anything but an academic. Strangers would often stop
me in the street to ask directions, and I was proud that I now knew how to show them the way.
In May I finished drafting my first solo paper with an Oxford affiliation. Eventually it would be
submitted to a respectable physics journal. Few members of the group bothered trying to publish in
leading physics journals, for it was notoriously difficult. I had tried for years, without success. Brent
prided himself on not having to do so at all, as a senior researcher in another discipline. My paper
would eventually be accepted for publication in November, but for now it was best forgotten.
It is well known that the introduction of double blind auditions for orchestras in the United States
increased the hiring of female musicians by a whopping 30%. Unfortunately, it is standard practice
in Physics for only paper referees to remain anonymous, allowing them to do as they please. Very
few journals have even considered employing double blind reviews for submitted articles, where the
referee would not be given the name or institution of the author.
I find it difficult to recall the good arguments against double blind refereeing in the internet age,
probably because there aren't any. When the journal Behavioral Ecology instituted double blind
reviews in 2001, there was a very noticeable increase in the acceptance of female authored papers,
while other journals in this discipline reported no noticeable change in this period. Given the
specialisation in Physics today, an author's name is quite likely to be known to a referee, who may
even have met the author. One cannot hide one's gender.
During the second half of May I began preparation of my talk for the Canadian conference. I spent
far too much time thinking about it. Life was still somewhat surreal. The thought of representing the
University of Oxford, even if it was only at a conference organised by Brent, continued to suspend
my faith in reality. And it would be the first time that a talk of mine was put into a video library.
This was completely standard practice nowadays, but given my sorry reputation I was wretched
thinking about it.
In the depths of this cognitive dissonance was the ever present, choking stereotype threat. I might
know that I deserved to be here, but I could not easily relax and accept it, especially when nobody
else did. And if I was not relaxed, it would reveal me as an imposter. I had felt this so many times
before that I knew it for what it was, and would not give in to it.
Brent was very much aware of the antagonism amongst some physicists for our line of research, but
he failed to appreciate the valid justification for some of this feeling. The final arbiter of physical
theory has always been, and can only be, experiment. Physics is supposed to describe the natural
world, not the dream world of any one person's creation. Brent's colleagues were mostly computer

scientists and mathematicians, completely ignorant about the needs of Physics. Technically, Julian
and I were the only real physicists in the group. None of the group's written work to date had made
any attempt whatsoever to calculate physical quantities beyond what was achievable with
established theories. This was supposed to be a job for the future, not the present.
One day Brent admitted to the group that he had never thought about cosmology, which he
considered to be completely independent of particle physics. Any real physicist would know that
these subjects are deeply intertwined. Brent had a good intuition for the ghost's idea of physical
scale, but he thought he could understand it without studying anything outside ordinary quantum
mechanics and Field X. I could not help wondering how being good at publishing papers in another
discipline qualified someone to believe themselves a leader in theoretical physics, even if the
professional theoretical physicists were clearly idiots.
Unfortunately, Brent was not the only man in academia suffering from this sickness. The priesthood
of the holy grail of Physics had taken up residence in a range of disciplines outside Physics. One
day at breakfast, a visiting materials engineer lectured me on the modern understanding of the laws
of quantum physics, which of course he knew so much more about than I did. Atsuo watched my
polite but stony face and tried hard not to laugh.
Many cosmologists still believe that Einstein's General Relativity, coupled with 20 th century particle
physics, describes the universe as a whole, despite many confirmed observations indicating that, in
this theory, ordinary matter makes up less than 5% of the universal mass energy budget. In other
words, the standard theory is a total failure, but to date it has been far, far easier to publish papers
on it than on any alternative idea, and publishing papers is how one maintains job security.
A new formalism for particle physics, desperately needed for so many reasons, would have to say
something about cosmology, because it would entail quantum gravity. Without the cosmology, it
could not hope to engulf particle physics, to replace the God particle, or to enable calculations of
new physical quantities. But we could discuss the cosmology without a working theory of quantum
In particular, the ad hoc dark energy that was supposed to pervade the universe in the standard
theory could easily be replaced by a speed of light that varied on cosmological time scales. This
idea does not conflict with the postulate of Einstein's Special Relativity, the constancy of the speed
of light, because Einstein's theory describes phenomena only in local cosmic time. Louise Riofrio,
who works as a research scientist for NASA, has studied the consequences of such ideas for many
years, demonstrating their viability. Their lack of popularity is due to the plain fact that varying
speeds of light do not fit into the equations of General Relativity.
In order for a varying speed of light to agree with astronomical observations, other parameters must

also vary in cosmic time. One of these is Planck's constant, which governs quantum behaviour. The
analogue for Planck's constant in Field X physics was an integer, namely the dimension of the
information space associated with a quantum state. In Field X, these integers were more
fundamental than the measured value of Planck's constant, which was associated with the
continuum model for spacetime. The whole hierarchy of integers could be viewed as a range of
constants, from spaces with little information to spaces with much, as in an evolving universe.
The tangible ghost of the times knew that the new world would create its own cosmology, to which
the old God of Man would eventually bow down. The ghost was sweeping waves of electrons
through the memory chips of the world's machines, as young bloggers and thinkers filed away their
One evening I decided upon the Japanese restaurant opposite New College for an early dinner. By
the corner pub I was forced to pause between a mob of tourists and the construction barriers. Two
neatly dressed senior Oxford men walked slowly past me in the other direction, taking the road and
conversing closely.
“We need more women in physics,” one suddenly confided in the other.
My head spun around to see their faces, but I did not know them and they were gone. I carried on
with a less impatient smile, the ghost having lifted my step. The ghost had not forgotten its past. It
saw through the clean surface of the stone, and remembered everything that had happened here.

Chapter 8

It had taken a while for me to settle in, but I was now getting back into blogging again. My
American colleague, long ignored by the establishment for being an amateur, was now highly
productive and beginning to have some success in publishing. This was no mean feat. He was the
first amateur in decades to win mention in the annual gravity essay contest, which provided him
with the chance to publish in a reasonable physics journal.
We were still being treated as outcasts by the Physics online paper archive, where all professionals
post drafts of their work for colleagues to read. The archive was known for blacklisting people. The
management denied having a blacklist, and insisted that its paper endorsement process was essential
for quality control.
Endorsement meant that an unestablished author would have to obtain permission from an
established author in order to post a preprint online. My American colleague and I had both
obtained endorsements from respectable physicists, but our papers were still routinely blocked from
the archive, as were the papers of a number of known researchers. Blocked papers included a few
that had already been published in peer reviewed physics journals.
When the archive administrators could find no convenient excuse for blocking papers, as in the case
of my accomplished American colleague, they just moved the paper from the professional listings
into an amateur listing, which nobody ever read. Personally, I felt it was a waste of time trying to
post draft papers on the archive, given the now endless available alternatives.
Now at Oxford, I was taken a lot more seriously by journalists. The popular Physics World
magazine finally posted an article on the evils of the archive, after a friendly online colleague set up
another alternative archive. The journalist actually phoned me for an interview. It seems that the
internet age may eventually aid research liberty.
My three weeks exile from Mrs Laughlin's house were pleasantly spent in a city cottage, owned by
an intelligent older English woman. A young German political science student was also staying
there for a few months. The hostess, who managed her guesthouse alone, would serve and eat
breakfast with us each day, and would sometimes ask us to join her for a glass of wine in the
evening. The German girl and I enjoyed the artiest cinema in Oxford, which was in nearby Jericho,
and I would walk with her to the laundrette in Summertown, a clean, suburban shopping district to
the north.
I would walk to this laundrette every Saturday morning until I left Oxford in October. Cramming a
week's washing into two small bags, I would march all the way along Banbury Rd to Summertown.
This laundrette was more expensive than the Cowley Rd one, but it sat on a pleasant side street,

between a cafe and a fine second hand store. Each week I would browse the goods in the store,
sometimes buying a dress, a blouse or a pair of shoes. The quiet cafe had a roomy sunny pavilion
out the back, with an assortment of cane and leather chairs, and sometimes they made good coffee.
After returning home to Mrs Laughlin's place, it was time to fly to Canada for a week. I headed to
the Oxford bus station in the early hours of the morning, in order to make Heathrow on time. By my
standards, it was a short flight. The Toronto airport shuttle dropped me off near the university
accommodation, which was basic, but comfortable and convenient. Most of the group would be
staying here.
The next morning I nervously walked to the institute in town, through the spacious campus and
along the railway line past the zoo, just as I remembered. There were geese and squirrels
At the front desk I was handed a conference name tag, but given no information about computer
access or desk space. It was clear that this had not been arranged for me, although this was standard
procedure for conference speakers. Perhaps the institute had made a mistake, but Brent was known
for being laissez faire about conference organisation.
Fortunately, a custom designed science institute has leather lounges and blackboards in almost
every corner, and it was easy to find a space to work. There were also espresso machines, a variety
of teas and fridges stocked with cold drinks. Geek paradise. The Oxford students, whose numbers
formed a full scale invasion on the small institute, soon discovered the pool table on the second
I hunted down Brent and Rex, the absentee postdoc in our group, who were sharing an office at the
institute. Rex had a background in computer science, and seemed happy to focus his research on
Brent's physics program. They had been working hard together on their latest paper. Rex had a wife
in Europe, which was where he lived in preference to Oxford, although Oxford employed him.
They nodded hello, and handed me the paper to proof read, but were happy to let me wander off on
my own again. The new building was a staggeringly good place to do science. Anyone used to the
crowded offices of Oxford could appreciate the space of the grand atrium, the private gym and the
airy corridors.
Naturally Brent complained that there was only one good pub nearby. We all agreed to meet there
later. It was a place that I remembered from my life here in 2003. As usual, with visual clues I
quickly remembered the basic layout of the town, and my favourite old sites, but I had completely
forgotten street names and other details, having lived in so many places in the intervening six years.
Brent made it clear that he didn't want me joining the little discussion groups that he had arranged
for the weekend to look at certain, specific research questions. He did this by ignoring me while

openly inviting others nearby to a group meeting. Since he had been away from Oxford, we had
hardly had any chance at all to talk yet, so I concluded that this new level of ill humour was due to
the low level of spontaneous praise, namely none at all, that I had directed in his direction in the last
three months. I was certainly not regretting my decision to do my own work, about which Brent had
no intention of asking.
As it happens, I knew one highly respected Canadian professor who was attending the conference,
and he asked me whether I wanted to join him and a few others at the blackboard in his office. To
these guys, this was the standard working method. They did it almost every day. Discussions are an
essential way to make progress with abstract ideas. It was an inconceivable circumstance to these
men that I had essentially no experience with such work methods, except for the short time that I
had worked with Leonard Cotton. I had taught myself almost everything I knew.
The Canadian professor had seen some of my appalling work conditions in New Zealand in 2007,
and clearly had some sympathy for my dire circumstances, although he had no idea how dire they
really were. He had been at Oxford when I arrived there, and asked me out to a group dinner at a
local restaurant. Now, even if only for an hour, and at the age of 41, I would see how it felt to do
ordinary scientific work, with others. The professor discussed some of his current ideas, about
which I didn't have much to say, but I left elated and hopeful that the week would turn out to be
With another pay check on the way I treated myself to good whisky at the pub. Having made a
decision, I told Brent that I was having second thoughts about the three year job that he had
arranged for me with a colleague, who needed a postdoc, at another English university. This job had
been suggested without any consultation with me. The problem was that this job (i) was not in my
discipline of physics (ii) entailed a lot of teaching and (iii) had a research component, carefully
specified in the job description, involving a speciality of some well known colleagues of Brent's,
that conflicted directly with my own long term research interests. This last point was the clincher.
Since Brent did not accept that I had my own research interests, he could not see the dilemma that I
was facing. In other words, although I did not say so, the job was a clever way to get me out of both
Oxford and physics, and no way in hell was I going to fall for that, whether the plan was deliberate
or not. If I had wanted to work in that branch of science, I would have made that decision when I
was studying it twenty five years earlier. I was a physicist and, no matter what anyone else thought,
I was going to keep trying to be a physicist, until, inevitably I supposed, it killed me. I headed back
to college relatively early, with a couple of students.
The conference went much as expected. The only women to speak were Mahtab and me, but this
was two more women than most of Brent's conferences. My talk was far too overprepared, and I

was really too nervous about being filmed for it to be any good, but I did the job. There were some
bright young Canadian students to talk to, but the conference attendees were mostly already known
to Steven, Brent and their underlings, and ignored by most of the locals from the institute, who
undoubtedly fancied themselves superior theoretical physicists. Brent also behaved as though he
was a world leading physicist, despite not being in a Physics department, and this arrogance had
probably not endeared our group to the institute.
Only one Canadian physicist admitted to having met me previously, by acknowledging my
existence, and this he could hardly avoid, since we had attended a conference together in Australia
only two years before, and he had just spent two years working on a project initiated by me and
Leonard Cotton when we were there at the institute in 2003.
We shook hands, but then he muttered something about being too busy to talk this week. The next
day he shoved me out of my favourite leather lounge, needing the space for his discussion group. I
guessed that my blogging career had not endeared me to these people either. I rarely bothered to
criticise their work, but my opinions on cosmology alone were probably enough to earn me
Later, Brent made a point of telling me that my talk was not focused. He was quite correct about
that, but only instinctively and accidentally, for it was clear that he had not really listened to what I
was saying, caring more for the confused comments of his peers. Steven, in contrast, made a
genuine effort to be helpful. By now I was convinced that Brent would only look at research very
directly related to his own recent work, and I was well past doing that. One cannot work easily with
people who do not take you seriously.
On his return to Oxford, realising now that he had hardly spoken to me at all, Brent decided to give
me some advice. This mainly consisted of telling me that I was no good at following advice, a
suspicion that he had confirmed after a private conversation with the Canterbury cosmologist, who
was visiting an independent physicist in Oxford. Imagine. I am almost the only female theoretical
physicist that I know of, anywhere in the world, and I did not find myself in this position by being
good at following advice, starting with my mother's advice to be more appreciative of the pink
presents that people gave me when I was two years old, which is to say, starting from the day that I
could talk.
“You could teach!” a random male friend would exclaim, as I looked for waitressing work on
completing my PhD, as if in my forty years the idea of teaching at a school had never occurred to
“That's not a very original suggestion,” I would snarl, and the immensity of the understatement
would go unnoticed.

I seethed with rage at the world's expectation that I should waitress, or do any other job but the job
of a physicist, just as I always had. With every dish I washed, every step I took, every false smile
that I put on for a customer, year after year, decade after decade, a little more of me died. This was
what society had demanded of me, if I was to eat. This was the productive employment with which
I would justify my existence. A waitress was no threat to the order of things. Who was I to question
the world?
But I had done the impossible before, and was not discouraged. I knew that calm feeling, in the
mountains, when Death stood beside you and only the most perfect strike of your ice axe would
send her away. I knew what it was like to lie in a field, cold and homeless, and wonder curiously
why your heart bothered to go on beating.
“I've read your CV, you know,” said Brent, standing over my desk. I said nothing, but my eyes
narrowed. If I had been in a more courageous mood, my raucous laughter would have filled the
corridors. “You can't go back to waitressing and expect to do research,” he continued, forgetting
that (i) I had spent years doing exactly that (ii) he had employed me on the basis of work I had done
whilst waitressing and (iii) I had no acceptable alternative options, except starvation.
“It's an option,” I replied sternly, not in the least tempted by the expedient options.
He was obviously annoyed. “I know what it's like, working in jobs like that. It's no fun,” he said,
and then paused. “Well, except maybe working in a bar.” This final remark made it perfectly clear
that he had never worked hard in a bar or restaurant in his life, and certainly not for so many years.
Brent had been at Oxford for a long time, and had succumbed to a peculiar form of English
snobbery, without realising how ridiculous it sounded to an antipodean.
“You should have taken that postdoc,” he said later, once it had been given to somebody else,
pointing out that it may have allowed me to do my own research after all. I suppose that bullying
tactics could work on a certain fraction of young male graduate students, but on women of my
background they were a guaranteed failure. My mother had made me impervious to all conceivable
insults. In me, insults would not engender respect.
Research groups in the physical sciences at the University of Oxford have a legal obligation to
report on measures they have taken to address the gender gap in their discipline. This may explain
my initial three months employment. The University of Oxford also has a legal obligation to assist
in the finding of suitable future work for all its academic employees. This may explain Brent's
frustration with my attitude on the job offer, about which I have no regrets. This would all look bad
in the report. The fact that no report would correctly record my own feelings or decisions was
clearly of no concern to anybody.
The female administrative staff would occasionally express some concern for me, but it was not

sincere. If somebody hinted that I was a nightmare, then it was probably true. Judie had promised to
invite me over to her house, but of course it never happened.
Nobody ever discussed any of these issues with me. Women scientists were supposed to be treated
just The Same As Everybody Else. That was the oft sprouted rule, clearly enunciated by many men
who were completely incapable of treating a female scientist in the same way that they treated male
colleagues. Brent decided that my problem was that I could not trust him, and I know this because
he told me so. My ingratitude was inexcusable.
In the end, there were a few fun evenings at the Oxford pubs with Julian and the students. Julian's
lady beat all of us at poker, after a close playoff for second between Callum and me. The game was
played with a proper set of chips for a small pot of real money. On another occasion, Julian boasted
that he had been the president of the University Scrabble society, but I am proud to say that his
skills were no match for the antipodean's that night. In June there was one late pub night arranged,
for which Brent mistakenly gave me the wrong address. Fortunately, as I stood waiting in the wrong
location on Cornmarket, Anton and his wife passed by and I followed them in the right direction.
Mahtab was tiring of the endless late night drinking. Once she sat down beside me and sighed, as
we looked around us at the crowded tables of male colleagues. This was her permanent home now.
Over the last few months, Mahtab had lost the gourmet hairstyle for a more conservative cut. I
regretted the hopelessness of getting to know her better.
Mahtab said that she wanted children one day. She had started lecturing in the department, so it is
likely that she will end up with a permanent job there, and be able to raise children without losing
her position. Time will tell.

Chapter 9

In a time of impending famine, in a world of fantasies about the eradication of poverty, change was
being postponed by the expense accounts of Brent's group. Piles of receipts from hotels and
expensive dinners in Canada were handed over to Judie, who had joined us on the trip herself under
some dubious pretext. Judie liked to joke about Brent's extravagances at bars and hotels around the
This being Oxford, they did not bother to hide their lack of thrift. Allowed expenses included
alcoholic drinks for students with dinner. Unused to such procedures, I had counted on paying for
everything myself, and would usually forget to keep the receipts. Judie admonished me, but there
was nothing to be done about it, for expenses could only be claimed once the paperwork was done.
A few of the students were warning me about the group's problems with Mark, the departmental
administrator. I told them that I had no problems whatsoever with Mark, and they looked at me in
surprise. They reminded me of Mark's terrible record with Brent, and I was forced to inform them
that I did not take gossip seriously. The students continued to support the group's official dislike for
Mark, laughing at Mark whenever he attempted to clear the building during one of the frequent fire
drills. Picturing ruptured gas lines during a massive earthquake I informed them that, where I came
from, it was inadvisable to ignore fire drills.
Weekly group meetings did not improve when Brent returned from Canada, because it was agreed
that everyone should relax over the summer. We would gather in the common room every
Wednesday with our sandwiches and salads, sparring loose, masculine pub talk. Sometimes a
strange young man would be sitting nervously in the room alone, waiting for a departmental
interview, wearing a finer suit than any New Zealander owns, mystified by our casual, unexpected
The summer schedule meant that I would be left alone to work in peace, barring the difficulties of
my crowded office. The final draft of my paper was submitted to a top physics journal, which
eventually accepted it. I did not bother to send a draft to Brent, who had by now clearly
demonstrated an inability to read anything that did not lie very definitely within his own personal
research agenda. Julian and Robert were kind enough to consider looking at my work.
Thousands of postdocs could have been employed for a fraction of the catering budget of the
wealthy colleges, but I could not begrudge them their generous and ancient traditions, and it was
often clear that some economies had been made in deference to the times.
Herbert arranged for a group of physicists to have a summer meal at his college. I was to meet the
friend, Priam, from another university nearby, with whom I had some common research interests.

This would be my first dinner at Herbert's college, and I was very much looking forward to it.
We met in the lodge around seven. There were only four of us, namely Herbert, Priam, me and one
other crazy theorist, a young man of independent means. We ate in a private dining room, and
Herbert told Priam about his adventures at Mt John observatory in Tekapo. It transpired that, over
the last months, Herbert had been telling many stories of his adventures in New Zealand to the
bemused fellows of his college.
I poured water into my small wine glass, leaving the larger glass for the French wine. Herbert
sighed, no doubt believing that I was ignorant about such things, but the waiter smiled knowingly
and poured me a generous glass.
Herbert and Priam asked me about the crazy ideas that I worked on and I babbled happily away,
sipping the wine. The other crazy theorist refused to disclose anything about his own work, and I
did my best to hide my disgust at this common practice. As somebody once said, there is no point in
keeping your ideas secret, because if they are any good at all you will have to ram them down
people's throats. This young man did hint at some classical symmetry principle, which probably
meant that the work was pointless.
After dinner, which was always served very promptly at this college, Herbert showed us the grand
old library and then we all indulged in some whisky. Unfortunately, both Priam and the other crazy
theorist had to leave early and so, dreadfully conscious of being the only remaining guest, I headed
home too.
As a good experimentalist, Herbert had shown some interest in the notoriously incomprehensible
Field X. After my first lunch at his college he had asked a few basic questions, and displayed a
noble effort to remember one basic idea: geometrical elements, such as points and line segments,
could have an enriched interpretation through the inclusion of logic in the symbolic language that
described them.
In order to make them useful, such insights into modern geometry need to be neatly encoded in a
suitable set of axioms, and augmented with new algebraic methods. My recent research in this area
considered algebraic structures connected with one other foundational construction: the prime
numbers and arithmetic. Specialists in Field X usually thought of a counting number as something
that labelled the elements of a finite set, or the dimension of a space. This was a useful idea in
modern quantum mechanics, because the processing of information in quantum systems suggested
just this kind of unification of the concepts of set and space.
One difficulty here is the habit in Field X of thinking about all the counting numbers at once, rather
than as numbers built from the primes. A classical geometer wishing to describe a class of six
dimensional spaces does not necessarily think to decompose these spaces into spaces of dimension

two and three, because there might not be any obvious way of doing so. But now the importance of
arithmetic at an axiomatic level was suggesting that there should always be a way of decomposing
spaces into primes.
One area of quantum mathematics where such prime decomposition naturally occurs is the theory of
knots. A mathematical knot is like a loop of thread in an ordinary three dimensional space. Knots
can be combined by cutting a short segment out of each of them and sewing the pieces together.
Under this process, a kind of multiplication of knots, there are prime knots. In the application of
Field X to quantum physics one draws diagrams of knots to describe, for instance, information
processing in low temperature systems. However, in such applications the primeness of knots is
mostly ignored.
Amongst those of a more mathematical bent, few now doubt that the profound problems of
quantum gravity are connected to the mysteries of the primes. In the words of the French
mathematician Alain Connes, a founder of noncommutative geometry, it is a question about the
way addition is fitting with multiplication. Here Connes is talking specifically about the Riemann
zeta function. Understanding a basic property of this function, namely where it takes the value zero,
is a great unsolved problem in mathematics, the so called Riemann hypothesis. Connes was
spending his life trying to understand what gravity had to do with the Riemann zeta function.
Naturally I was never invited to give a departmental seminar in Brent's department, but in early
June I gave a seminar at the Mathematical Institute on St Giles. I was often there to visit the small,
quiet library, or to attend seminars. Kenneth was my seminar organiser, and it was attended by a few
notable scientists. As I had only recently returned from Canada, the talk was not well prepared, but I
spoke about a fascinating topic close to my heart, and one that I would desperately like the chance
to work on with some of my more mathematical colleagues.
One mathematician in the audience, Lucas Moore, could see the value in this work, and its possible
connection to his own research. We discussed it over the seminar lunch at Pierre Victoire's, the best
restaurant near the science area, where many groups held regular lunches. This led to me being
invited to an extremely exclusive physics workshop, to be held at the home of Sir Reginald Parker,
who was an indisputably great scientist.
At another seminar, Lucas Moore introduced me to Reginald Parker as a “strange person working
on Field X, but with an interest in our work.” Reginald Parker, who seemed to be a kind man,
gracefully proferred the opinion that Field X was really where things were at. Unfortunately, few
people in this group knew anything about Field X, and people tended to react to its mention like a
stoic maiden bravely fending off vampires. Still, this doubtful attitude was a vast improvement upon
the blank stares that Field X had inspired in earlier decades.

In my view, the history of Field X stretched back over a century to one under appreciated
mathematical philosopher, C. S. Peirce, who pioneered diagrammatic logic. Later on, Field X was
developed by one of the 20th century's greatest mathematicians, Alexandre Grothendieck. Now an
old man living in secret isolation in France, Grothendieck thinks a lot about physics. He once told a
mathematical colleague that he would listen to her ideas if she could answer one simple question:
what is a metre? The accomplished, but clearly dim witted, academic had the audacity to actually
attempt an answer.
In the real world, the standard metre is defined as the distance that a specified variety of laboratory
photon travels in a second. Since the speed of light is supposedly constant, the metre is therefore
closely related to the atomic standard for time. But the metre, or at least an appropriate astronomical
unit of distance, is also used to quantify distances on cosmological scales. If the speed of light is not
constant looking back in cosmic time, the estimated distances between clusters of galaxies, from our
Earth bound perspective, would be wrong. To decide distances, one had to be certain about the
It is said that Grothendieck sees devils sitting on the shoulders of today's physicists. Many
professionals laugh at him and think he's mad, but the devil knows what kind of man would sell his
soul for the illusion of knowledge, and he tickles them incessantly.
Grothendieck had been the unwitting catalyst for my 2003 departure from Leonard Cotton. Leonard
and I were working in the south of France, at the same institute where Grothendieck had once
worked. Leonard was very keen to meet Grothendieck, and eventually got hold of one of the very
few mathematicians who knew where he lived. One day Leonard was giving a personal seminar to
this man, an ex student of Grothendieck's, and I was also present.
Leonard was proudly painting a grand picture of his own research program, placing it at the
forefront of theoretical physics. This was not the way to earn an audience with the long suffering
Grothendieck, whom I felt should be left alone. Bearing the stress of my recent fall into a deep
crevasse, I was so furious that I stormed out of the seminar room, as fast as one could with a broken
leg. Once back in my village, which was some distance from the university, I decided to return to
New Zealand a few weeks early. There was no longer any reason to carry on in poverty in France. I
never saw Leonard after that.
I was just a hanger on at the Oxford workshop events, but they meant more to me than anyone
could comprehend, because there would be whole days of sitting with researchers by a blackboard.
The event had been arranged by Professor Moore for the visit of a prominent American physicist
and his two students. Reginald and the American did all the talking, with only occasional comments
from the rest of us. The workshops were held in Reginald's large house in the forest, which was

surrounded by a beautiful garden and tall trees, and had a grand stone terrace on which to enjoy the
summer sun. At lunch time we ate on the terrace and Reginald brought out coffee and cake.
On the first evening, joined by the local wives and children, we drove to an ancient village pub for
dinner, and I sat next to Reginald, the impressively energetic American and his students. Both
students were about to take up their first postdocs at top institutions in the States. I asked the boy
next to me whether or not he would be allowed to do his own research and he looked at me in
surprise. The answer to this question was always the same, amongst the young men that I surveyed.
“Of course I'm allowed to do my own research. It's a postdoc.”
We lingered over the meal until well after dark, letting the children play in the old stone courtyard,
and then Reginald drove some of us back into town.
Surely now I would have a few months of peace. I altered my office routine as much as possible to
avoid the potential harrassment of John the dude. I never heard from Herbert over the summer.
Perhaps he was away. It was a lonely business, but I had an unfamiliar opportunity here, to forget
about the daily affairs of life and focus on my work. I knew that I would have to leave in October,
but that was still months away.
My paycheck at the start of July put me in a position to eat out often. At lunch I would usually
follow the local custom and buy something from the deli on St Giles, relishing the dreadful
decadence of tossing the waste into the office bin. In my room at home there was a microwave, but
no kitchen. I was getting no exercise, and put on a lot of weight, but every evening I would laugh to
myself at the novel luxury of deciding where to eat dinner. I liked the cheap Chinese place nearby,
because it was what I was used to eating. I went to an expensive place for some tasteless oysters, a
far cry from the fresh Pacific oysters I had eaten as a child, when the oceans were unmolested, but I
enjoyed the pina colada and chatted with the friendly waiter.
I discovered the best pub meals, such as the roasts at the Royal Oak, the lamb at the White Horse on
Broad St, or the duck at the Eagle and Child, and I ferreted out the other reasonable Asian
restaurants. There was also an old Italian place, in a narrow lane near home, which I started visiting
for dinner once a week, always ordering an entree and main course with a side of vegetables. I was
fast becoming a walking eating guide to the city of Oxford.
For lunch on Sundays I liked to eat at Pierre Victoire's. Few tourists found this place. Brent's group
had its seminar lunches here during term, but over summer there was no danger of running into any
of them. I would arrive at opening time, exactly at noon, and sit at a small table by the wall, facing
away from the narrow street. The familiarity of it was relaxing.
It never occurred to me that it was strange, living in a city with such a clear division of labour, male
and female, for it was a natural extension of the world I had always known. Who knew what they

did, those passing strangers in the street. Perhaps that woman with the perfect eyelashes, in the light
green mini skirt, was an engineering professor from Banbury Rd. All right, not likely. Top notch
grooming was a full time occupation and I doubted that engineering professors at Oxford had time
for two careers.
I had once been young and fit, innocently wandering the hot Sydney streets, skimpily clad. The fall
off in male interest on the transition to mature frump had been staggering, not that I had needed
proof of man's shallowness. The dirty T-shirt wearing, IT guru ex boyfriend had once insisted on a
short grey leather mini, with matching jacket. In those days I was accustomed to the ballroom heels,
and could obey with a friendly shrug.
A short walk from the office the varied tulips, that lay in densely packed beds near the gates to the
university park, were now in bloom. It was warm enough to lie on the cool grass, half listening to
the distant drone of men playing cricket. Near the science laboratories, the path followed a wooded
green, where squirrels scampered up onto the rubbish bins. Mrs Laughlin's house could be reached
through the parks, and every morning now I would walk cheerfully to the office beside the early
joggers and contented dogs.
Each morning was a time for optimism. Who knew what the day would bring. As I spread the butter
and marmalade liberally onto my toast, chatting with Atsuo, I could almost imagine a bright future.
The sensible advice in the postdoc welcome pamphlets had recommended not checking one's email
first thing in the morning, but my longing for human interaction would win out. And in the
department, there was always the world's laziest cleaner to talk to, while waiting for yet another cup
of tea to brew.

Chapter 10

In applications of Field X to quantum computers, the conventional protagonists are named Alice
and Bob. Alice and Bob share a special quantum object containing information that is spread out
between their distant laboratories. This enables Alice to send Bob quantum information through the
communication of only two bits of classical information, say via a phone call. However, it is
important to note that Alice can only send quantum information that she prepared, but did not
actually know herself. So a quantum object is truly teleported from one place to another, but only if
Alice is careful not to disturb it by accidentally measuring it beforehand.
In this way no information travels faster than the speed of light locally, even in quantum physics.
But what if Alice's lab and Bob's lab were cosmologically distant? Observe that this domain has
never been tested by human theories, unless we count the Pioneer spacecraft, now at the edge of the
solar system. The observed motion of these craft, namely that they are closer to the sun than they
should be, does not agree with ordinary mechanics or the usual application of General Relativity,
but may be quantitatively explained by a non local varying speed of light.
If Alice and Bob both live in the early universe, where the speed of light is relatively large from our
point of view, they can communicate quickly, even across big sections of our sky. A larger speed of
light thus explains the observed homogeneity in temperatures across our sky in the cosmic
microwave background. In contrast, the standard cosmology proposes that the early universe went
through a period of inflation, blowing up quickly and smearing out quantum fluctuations. This
mechanism usually requires a new kind of particle, but these have never been observed.
The list of crucial theoretical particles that have never been observed is growing quite extensive
these days. Besides the inflation particle and the God particle there are a whole host of particles in
string theory, called supersymmetric partners. Supersymmetry is a way of roughly doubling the
number of known particles by assigning a boson to every fermion and a fermion to every boson. All
these hypothetical particles need to be fairly massive to have escaped detection in particle
accelerators to date. The hope is that the now operational Large Hadron Collider at CERN will turn
up such objects.
I finally began to appreciate the city of Oxford later in July, when I tried to alleviate my gluttony by
discovering long walks to take on sunny afternoons. Despite the endless sense of hopelessness, this
would be the happiest month of my life.
After much experimentation, I found an ideal working routine. Six days a week, I would have a
civilised breakfast at home, work until noon in the office, eat a leisurely lunch and then walk for
two hours, weather permitting, before returning to the office. After dinner I planned to work at

home too, but sometimes I would drift off to a light sleep instead, or listen to music on my laptop.
I would often walk north along the Thames. From the bridge on Walton Well Rd one could reach the
Port Meadow, the ancient piece of grazing land close to the city, where horses and cows mingled
with joggers and walkers.
Across the meadow, a bridge led to the path up the river, which was often busy with fishermen,
rowers and children playing, cows cooling themselves, and flocks of raucous geese. The path
passed through several locks, with barges tied up beside tidy gardens, and then paddocks, as it
meandered on to Swinford. To a Kiwi the water was disturbingly dirty, but the walk was pleasant
and this was home.
Alternatively, I would catch the bus to nearby Woodstock, to wander in the parks of the grand
Blenheim Palace. Kenneth told me that Rosamund, the mistress of King Henry II, had lived in a
Saxon lodge here. He invited me to yet another college lunch.
Kenneth's affluent college always put out a bottle of fine French, or antipodean, wine for those
decadent enough to indulge at lunch time, and I was not about to waste such opportunities. Kenneth
would eat modestly, while I shamelessly piled food onto my plate.
After lunch, Kenneth showed me his college office. Senior fellows often have nicer offices in
college than they do in their crowded departments, and in the humanities they may not have a
departmental office at all. Kenneth had a large office overlooking the street, with an extensive
collection of books, a long working table, his private desk and one or two old portraits.
He showed me a new popular cosmology book, which I promptly looked doubtful about despite
being unable to read it, since it was in German. We discussed a little mathematics and perhaps
Kenneth would not have minded if I stayed all afternoon, but this seemed rude and soon enough I
said my goodbyes.
There were fewer seminars over the summer, but at least the mathematicians tried to keep things
going. The Mathematical Institute filled in its sparse seminar notice board with daily puzzles. The
quiet window seat in the corridor near the staff library was now warm in the afternoon sun. I could
read there alone, looking down across Keble Rd, or across the narrow lane at the anarchist graffiti
on the red brick wall.
Conscious of budget constraints, and wary of the summer crowds, I did not travel outside Oxford
except for my trips to Woodstock, the countryside walks, and a one day Field X meeting at Imperial
College in London. There was so much to see in Oxford itself.
A young physicist began frequenting the Summertown laundrette, every second Saturday. The first
week, not knowing each other, we sat together waiting for our washing without saying a word. I did
not like to begin conversations with strangers. Then one morning the following week I saw him at

morning tea in the Theoretical Physics centre. Benito, an Italian physicist, had a real three year
postdoc job in one of the physics departments, which I occasionally visited for seminars. He was
good natured and organised, always cramming his T-shirts and jeans neatly into a small suitcase
with wheels.
Benito often bought me real coffee at the cafe next to the laundrette, and we would sit outside in the
sun waiting for our washing. I tried to take turns buying coffee, but Benito knew how poor I was
and would not allow it. These Saturday mornings were a chance to let off steam. Conversations
often ended in mutual complaints about The System, and the perpetual homelessness of postdocs.
Benito had been working hard for months to publish one difficult paper, only to realise that this
would not help him find his next job.
My housemate Atsuo and I would enjoy an occasional concert or play or Chinese meal. Outdoor
Shakespeare plays were being performed all summer and Atsuo was determined to enjoy these,
despite the difficulty he had in comprehending the old English.
The frequent local concerts were only sometimes advertised online, where I would hear of them, but
always advertised on posters placed in random locations around the city. Atsuo would spot the most
poorly advertised chapel concerts, and I would rely on him to tell me about these.
Robert and Rafael were away much of the summer, so I would have had the office to myself if it
wasn't for the now haughty John. With regard to John, the gossip had turned out to be all too true.
His scary confidence had recently grown with some publishing success. The only way to deal with
this was to ignore it as much as possible, but it was very difficult to work on the occasions that he
had women in the office, or visiting colleagues from the States. The male colleagues gave seminars,
while the female visitors might be treated to a hands on demonstration of martial arts. Luckily, the
male colleagues were typically enlightened, and would be suitably horrified by John's behaviour.
“You know,” John said to his Harvard colleague, who was sitting next to me, “Beatrice here was
offered a PhD position in the department, but she turned it down, and she's going to Chicago
instead. What is she thinking!” Prestige was obviously a very important thing to John.
It was clear that Beatrice was not the only young woman to leave the department for greener
pastures, far away. Brent and Steven had just attempted to create a proper job for a successful
female researcher from Europe, but were turned down by her. They had to hire a London man
instead. I had seen this job advertised, but of course Brent had not mentioned it to me.
As the months passed, allowing my expert procrastination skills to develop further, I discovered
more and more wonderful corners of the city. On hot afternoons I would lie in the lily garden in the
farthest corner of the large grounds at Magdalen College, without being interrupted by a single
tourist or student, since it was slightly off the path. Looking down at busy High St from the high

church tower, I imagined I saw the ghost of the times sweeping litter into the construction zone with
a gust of wind. The visitors would soon return home and put their plastic drink bottles into the
recycling bucket once again, perhaps believing it was an easy thing to be good and change the
Theoretical physicists everywhere were losing jobs. The times are hard, people would say, but the
popularity and funding in Field X was growing. If Field X was secure, then perhaps my limited
usefulness to the world really was at an end. After all, other people were permitted to work on it
One special feature of Field X is its comparitive nature. In the old mathematics one speaks about
sets of things and then mappings from one set to another, but a set and a mapping are two
completely different entities. In Field X, on the other hand, everything is a mapping. A set is now
the mapping that takes every element of the set to itself, the identity function. So a mapping might
go from a mapping to a mapping. If we represent a mapping by a line arrow, then mappings of
mappings are areas between line arrows. Then there are mappings between mappings between
mappings, and so on. This is just the kind of crazy geometrical thinking that physicists are always
trying to get their heads around.
I had forgotten a great deal. Subjects that I had spent years studying now sat, barely acknowledged,
in dark corners of my intuition, but this intuition had been paid for honestly, in blood and sweat. I
had an immense built in catalogue for tracking down all sorts of relevant information. The
Canterbury academics had constantly criticised this skill, insisting that depth came from the narrow
focus that they themselves employed.
On my way home, I often passed one of the newest, central Oxford colleges, Green Templeton
college. This college takes half its name from the late John Templeton, the philanthropic founder of
the Templeton Foundation.
Today this foundation is a major source of funding in theoretical physics, which falls under its
umbrella of research into life's important questions. Always careful to distance its science program
from its Christian background, the Foundation nonetheless generates constant criticism regarding its
hidden agenda, even from researchers who are happy to make use of its funds. Each year the
Foundation awards a grand prize, worth more than the Nobel prize, to a researcher who has worked
on furthering our understanding of science's place in our lives. Needless to say, it usually goes to a
The most vocal critics of the Foundation's activities are typically successful scientists immersed in
an atheist tradition, but they do not seem to criticise misogyny in science, despite the historical
common ground of Christian tenets. People were happy to fault one Patriarchy, whilst steadfastly

upholding another. I was living in a Dan Brown novel, facing villains on all sides.

Chapter 11

British bureaucracy is finely represented by its railway ticketing system. One does not simply go to
the station to buy a ticket before boarding one's train, even for a straightforward one hour journey
into London. Such a procedure is technically possible, but extremely expensive. Instead, to obtain a
reasonably priced ticket, one books in advance online. One cannot, however, simply print out a
ticket or receipt. It is essential that one obtain the official wad of tickets, seat reservations and
receipts. These are obtained either through the mail, which is very convenient because the postman
delivers it all to your door, or from the automatic ticket issuing machine at the station. Attempting to
alter your chosen itinerary, in any way, is not advisable.
My first day trip to London was for the Imperial College workshop in early August. The whole
group was going, but I wanted to catch an earlier train so that I might walk through Hyde Park from
Paddington station. Hyde Park turned out to be fairly large, and I arrived at Imperial just before the
talks began, sweating profusely.
This workshop series had new speakers for each occasion, providing Brent with valuable input from
a variety of points of view. I had been scheduled to speak here earlier in the year, when stuck in
New Zealand, but Brent had not bothered to reschedule my talk.
Today I was very happy to see one familiar face, a European guest speaker, whom I had met in
Australia several years before. After the talks, we sat together at the pub dinner, next to Julian and
John. This man was suggesting that I might visit the physics department at his university while I
was here in Europe, but he was a mathematician, without any idea of how unpopular I was with the
physicists he knew.
John seemed to be wondering about some gossip he had overheard. He turned to me and asked
directly whether or not it was true that I had been involved in real cutting edge physics research.
“Well, I suppose that depends what you mean by cutting edge,” I said, evasively, “but, yes.” John
was probably thinking about my 2003 work with Leonard Cotton, about which I did not particularly
care, and he knew nothing.
The conversation turned to an important concept in Field X, heavily used in the research of the
London people. John referred to it as The Concept X Approach to gravity, as if the London way was
the only way to do things. This is what he had been taught to think. Our guest speaker quickly
corrected him by turning to me and asking, rhetorically, “But you have A Concept X Approach,
yourself, don't you?”
Of course I was most gratified by his recollection of my work and, ignoring John, I replied, “Yes,
that's true, but we don't mention that around here.”

Concept X had been the subject of the spurious job offer, that I had turned down. Brent was mostly
unaware that this was one of my major research topics, having not read my curriculum vitae or
thesis too carefully, if at all. Occasionally I discussed this subject with Robert, in our office, because
he was a keen student with good scientific taste, but nobody else seemed interested.
I was learning that postdocs who were perceived as weak were considered mere employees, all
scientific creativity denied. For years, the world had been busy destroying any remaining
opportunities that women like me might have. Brent had seriously expected me to ditch ten years of
careful thinking for the competing approach of his own colleagues, simply because it was a paid
My general state of happiness began to fade in mid August, as the dirty blackberries ripened along
the Thames and the clock on my personal doomsday bomb started ticking loudly. I booked my
flight to New Zealand for Tuesday the sixth of October. Several people, including Herbert, would
express surprise at my supposed desire to leave, since it was well known that the UK government
was hopeless at ousting illegal immigrants.
What exactly did they think I was going to do for a living, without a work visa? Begging was
technically illegal, and not conducive to quality research. Prolonged starvation seems to work a
little better, but I could do that more comfortably, and legally, in New Zealand. I had a habit of
checking the legal status of the essential activities of the poor. As a scientist, an accidental criminal
record that prevented future travel would be devastating.
Oxford University employs an astonishing number of people to aid researchers in finding funding.
There were research officers in my department, and once a week they would email lists of
upcoming opportunities. The biggest local source of funding for early career researchers, at my
level, was the government fund administered by the UK Research Council.
Brent told me not to apply for a Research Council fellowship, because my poor publication record
would let me down and it was therefore a waste of time, but I saw no reason not to attend the
informative seminars about the application process. To my surprise, when I emailed the research
officers about my proposed research, they were enthusiastic that I should apply. They told me that
for this particular grant, my publication record was not a problem.
It took a few weeks to prepare the required documents, in the proper format. I showed them to a
departmental research officer, and he carefully edited them and gave me helpful suggestions.
Finally! I was learning something about grant applications! Technically, it was Brent's responsibility
to help me with such things, but I was hoping to keep this application a secret from him. At least
two other members of the group were applying, both males of course, and it was clear that Brent
wanted no competition from the likes of me.

In the end, after almost all documents were uploaded to the online system, it remained to procure a
departmental letter. The research officers had already assured me that the department would host my
application, but it turned out that the head of the department wanted the signature of a group leader,
and that would be Brent. The specifications carefully stated that independent research was a
priority, but in The System this was a lost cause.
Mahtab had received this fellowship the year before, which was how she was employed at Oxford.
Since she had been going out with Brent for a number of years, Brent had essentially supported the
application of his partner. So much for the conflict of interest clause.
With no departmental letter, the application was not submitted. The academic head of department
decided that my proposal was weak. Since he works in a completely different discipline, I am
curious to know on what grounds he came to this conclusion. Steven was more supportive, but
unwilling to overturn what was, as it happens, Brent's decision. I regretted the wasted effort that the
research officers had put into my proposal, to no avail. They told me that the Council had admired
my brief abstract and were keen to fund such genuinely interdisciplinary research. I mentioned this
to Brent.
“You must have imagined that,” he said. Brent had made up his mind, without having made any
effort at all to get to know me, that I was not good enough for Oxford. My determination to do my
own research was a serious problem, in someone so weak.
He made a tentative offer to assist me with another grant proposal, but it was clear that any proposal
would have to fall more into line with his own research program. This was the modern scientist's
road to power. Since he clearly had no real desire to help me, I could no longer take his offers
seriously. The department, Brent was certain, needed people who could publish papers in his field.
Other academics at Oxford were amusingly scathing about the publishing culture in science, but
such humour had no place in this group.
Brent also made a point of telling me, quite unnecessarily, that the Canadian institute had offered
jobs to a few of the younger men in the group. They had all turned the offers down, preferring to
stay in Oxford. In other words, the Canadian institute was desperately short of people working in
Field X. They tried to employ the London man, but he was now at Oxford too. There can be little
doubt that a kind word from either Brent or Leonard would have greatly improved my chances of a
Canadian job, but I have since applied there and, as expected, received no reply at all.
Having made the serious error of associating himself with me, when there was no shortage of
colleagues who would have advised him against it, Brent was now keen to demonstrate that he had
learned his lesson. The next female postdoc would have to be a very sensible woman, who knew her

Etienne was one of the Research Council applicants. His wife Catherine gave birth to a lovely baby
girl, and I caught the bus out to their house to visit them. Etienne was under a great deal of stress,
worrying about finding work at home in Canada, and having to support his family. His tiny baby
girl lay sleeping on the sunny patio in a basket. They had named her Alice.
When I had arrived in Oxford, everything had been surreal. I had found it difficult to believe I was
really here. I had applied for hundreds of jobs at other universities without receiving a single offer,
despite the disclaimers about equal opportunity on most university websites. But now, as with every
moment that passes, I was no longer the old me. Now this was home. And now, with shining clarity,
I saw that all these other people deserved this home no more than I.
Sometimes a basic superiority subroutine ticked away visibly behind their eyes. Where is her doubt,
I could see them thinking. Who was I to believe so much in myself? What had I done, compared to
them? But they would never go looking for answers, or the truth, and never see the years of doubt
and despair that they themselves had never known. My seething rage came from seeing, as clear as
day, the scientifically established sexism all around me. I had only learned to see it the hard way
myself, and so I knew that they still were blind.
I had desperately hoped that the Research Council application would somehow go through in the
end. Knowing it would get nowhere without the magic signature, I pressed the submit button
anyway, forcing poor Mark to call me into his office.
“There is nothing I can do about this,” he said. I nodded meekly and told him that I understood.
Mark sighed. “I really don't understand what is going on here,” he said, nodding towards the ceiling
to indicate the presence of Brent. I told him again that that was quite all right, and left.
Without this fellowship there would be no real opportunity for funding here. Most grant
applications require letters from several referees and I was always forced to rely on letters from
amateur colleagues in the States. After years of not speaking to him, I even asked Leonard Cotton
for a reference, but he refused to help me. I was wasting my time applying for anything. All I
needed was for one, only one, institution in the world to see that I would be excellent value for
money. But it was really a very small world, in which invisible emails and phone calls would put
me in my proper place.
They said they did not believe in their God of Man, but this god had ruled for millenia and in this
new millenium they were not questioning their high place. Children followed their mothers through
the streets like in the new streets of Eridu, when a dying ice age had made repopulation a sacred
duty. What was our duty now?
They say there is always hope, and perhaps this is true, but hope will not feed you. On the other
hand, denying hope will send you somewhere you definitely don't want to be. I recalled having once

walked, seriously ill, weeping and penniless, through an unfamiliar, crowded airport terminal,
ignored by everyone around me. The people's faces wore ghostly grimaces. It was not a dream. That
day my eyes caught those of a man beside me, and for the first time in my life I saw a strange man
recoil in instinctive fear. Once women had stood beside men on the battleground, and earned their
There are many hells on Earth, but to escape them one cannot cling to vague hope, like to an
overturned raft on a rough sea, which in all likelihood will be lost. Survival is more complicated
than that. I was a bona fide expert on survival, having confounded fire, flood, week long storms
without shelter, starvation, bouts of dysentry, mountaineering equipment failures on long technical
ice climbs, high altitudes, general ostracism, back stabbing, and life as a buxom scientist.
Many would question the quality of my research, but demonstrate the irrelevance of this question
by making no attempt to evaluate it, knowing it to be worthless from the start. Through a screen of
perpetual outrage, I saw that I was a leading female theoretical physicist, and objectively speaking, I
deserved support. The reality was that the dismally low percentage of women in Physics dropped at
each rung of the ladder. I was beginning to understand why.
Howard Georgi is a respected Harvard physics professor, who has campaigned for improved
conditions for women and minorities in science. He has a number of online articles, including
suggestions for job search committees. In his words: if you send a search letter, ask your informants
to list the best women and minorities in the field, even if they do not rate them as highly as the top
men. This will at least get people thinking about the issue, and may turn up candidates that would
be overlooked otherwise.
I giggled as I tried to picture my colleagues scratching their heads, searching for female names,
annoyed for being asked. There were a few women in the discipline as a whole, but in areas like
Field X there were essentially none. We had hit the ultimate brick wall, behind which the last
bastion of the Patriarchy calmly stacked its amunition against us.

Chapter 12

As the Autumn term approached, there was talk of organising seminars. Nobody bothered to involve
me, for I would not be here during term. There was also much excitement about the impending
departure of another large research group, because Brent's expanding group would be taking over
their offices in October. Brent was Napolean, building his empire.
As usual on Wednesday, the group ate together in the department's common room. It appeared that
John wanted to organise an interdisciplinary session this term. He somehow managed to swagger
whilst seated, opposite Brent, Julian and me.
“You know,” said John. “Last term, these things were not well organised, or well attended.” He was
being directly critical of me and Julian of course, and of my audacity in organising seminars shortly
after arriving in Oxford. Brent absently nodded in support, looking vaguely uneasy as he
remembered having been on another continent at the time.
“We need better organisation,” John carried on, “and I have some ideas.” John's last seminar had
been advertised for the wrong day and location, but I don't think he ever actually noticed this. The
conversation drifted towards the definition of the word interdisciplinary, giving John an excuse to
rave gloriously about his own line of research. “This is really foundational stuff,” he was saying.
The more reasonable students and onlookers cringed. Brent frowned, now nodding his head in
disagreement. “No, no,” Brent admonished calmly. “No, it's not.” John was currently being forced
to work more on Field X, to prove his eligibility for a PhD, which it was generally considered
would take more than John's work to date. John had published, but then anyone with a Harvard or
Oxford affiliation can publish papers. He made a weak attempt to protest, and then gave in.
In fact, John's area of research is wonderfully interdisciplinary, only not in the right way. By
analogy, there are chemists, philosophers, and god knows who else, teaching themselves
information theory. The problem is that most feel they don't need to know about current ideas in
information theory. It is more convenient to take some very elementary, and ancient, mathematics
and physics, and apply it. This is a relatively easy way to make a career, and no doubt there is good
work in this industry, but it is not, I repeat not, at the forefront of physics research. Brent knew this
very well. Over the years I had met an astoundingly large number of men willing to lecture me on
the foundational nature of their field, despite their obvious relative ignorance of mathematical
However that may be, and despite his profound ignorance about many things, John would have a
career in physics and I would not. For all the talk of assisting women in the physical sciences, not to
mention the so called legal requirements, the truth is that we don't stand a chance. The few

successful ones have always, without a single exception as far as I know, had the long term support
of family, friends and mentors. I had nothing beyond the aid, and fleeting friendship, of the many
wonderful people that I met from year to year. I was constantly fighting battles with a world that the
men would not see and, although determined to go on fighting, I had given up any real hope of
substantial support a very long time ago.
Etienne let Catherine take an afternoon off from minding their baby Alice, so that Catherine and I
could walk along the Thames to the old pub at Wythym. Catherine took us on a detour to the yard of
the deserted ancient church in which lay the well that Alice had taken into Wonderland. We bitched
about The Patriarchy, and English cooking, along the way. Catherine also had a career which would
be difficult to start up again when she returned to Canada shortly, penniless and with a family. She
had come here to be with Etienne, but his job at Oxford was coming to an end.
One day Brent introduced the office to a visiting seminar speaker, a woman. She told me that she
might be getting a job with Brent, but she had been told that it depended on funding. “I see,” I said
darkly, within his earshot. I googled her name to see what her research was like. It was quite
ordinary, and it was clear that she knew very little of the mathematics and physics of Field X, on
which she would be expected to work. She could never be a part of the group's research in the same
way that I might have been. Yes, she would not cause any trouble.
Sometimes I went to one of the neighbouring departments for morning tea, because they were far
friendlier and they actually spoke about physics. There were even other women there sometimes,
besides the catering and administrative staff.
Eventually I discovered that Herbert would not be inclined to email me again this summer so, quite
uncharacteristically, I wrote to him myself and hinted that I would be leaving Oxford soon. He
promptly asked me to dinner at his college again, saying that I was on his list of potential academic
guests. How nice it would have been to do something else for a change, for one cannot get to know
someone at rushed group meals. Ah, how quickly any extravagance can become mundane.
It was still summer, so a small group of us met in the lunch room, where we were served an
excellent meal. The locals included an intriguing old astronomer, with tales of NASA missions that
he had led, the new female chaplain and a female biology professor.
I mentioned to Herbert that I was reluctant to move out of physics, as I had been advised to by
Brent. He muttered a telling reply, about needing to play The Game sometimes. I told him that I had
instead lined up a waitressing job at Aoraki village, and he dutifully recalled the spectacular
location, reminding the others that I didn't just work in any old cafe, as if it was quite all right that I
worked in cafes at all. The chaplain and I quickly determined that her church had advanced
women's rights far beyond what had been achieved in physics, although newspaper reports about

deals with the Vatican made it clear that nothing was yet set in stone.
The meal passed quickly, being a very regular event in the calenders of most present. The young
woman serving the vegetables stood gracefully by the table with a calm smile, as if this was the
most natural thing in the world for her to be doing. Herbert was surprised to discover that the
physicists really ought to have invited me to an outdoor opera over the summer, since I was such a
fan, but it was too late for that now.
Herbert, like so many of the Oxford men, had been a student at Oxford as a boy. He had spent his
formative years in one of the last all male colleges, and there had never been any doubts about his
career. Of course Herbert did not think his life had been easy, but everywhere Herbert went he
would be admired by both women and men, and there would always be food on his table.
Everyone retired to the common room for a little coffee, but soon it was time to leave, with a
promise from Herbert that I could visit the college once again before I left. Herbert reminded me to
contact Priam, who worked in a nearby city, easily reached by train. In fact, it turned out that Priam
had asked after me, having read the short preprint that I had recently written with my amateur
American colleague.
I was gratified to hear that Priam, considered an expert in that field, had told Herbert that he thought
the paper was rather good. No doubt Herbert had been shocked. It was agreed that I should give a
seminar at Priam's university just before I left the country.
Benito, my Italian laundrette colleague, was now buying me instant coffee in the nearby physics
cafeteria. I had been here a few times with mathematicians, but knew almost none of the physicists.
I offered to buy the coffees once again, as Benito and I stood in line. Benito shook his dark red hair,
frowning in disapproval.
“Oh, you mean because I will soon be homeless,” I said loudly.
The old physicist behind us gave me a curious look, but said nothing. Benito and I sat down at an
empty table by the window and carried on a loud conversation about the injustices of my situation.
The same old man sat down next to us, but still he said nothing.
September had definitely arrived. In early October, I would return to New Zealand with one month's
salary to live on. It was difficult to think of much else now, because a tight travel budget demands
careful long term planning, and I was very anxious about this inevitable and dreadful return to
poverty. I was rationing my spending, enjoying some dinners from the street cart on Woodstock Rd,
or the cheap delicatessen near home.
Rex, the absentee postdoc, was suddenly in Oxford, and wanting to work with me on a small matter
of common interest. We spent about two days in total, thrashing out some elementary algebra in his
office. He was a jolly character, pleasant to work with, but it was difficult to get inspired by his

loose methodology. My guess is that Brent had roped him into writing a report of some kind with
me, since that would have some weight with the department. Brent had hinted that I should write
such a report, but in my field one does not write technical internal reports. One publishes papers.
The young ones were getting on with their lives. Julian got married in September, to the very fine
woman who had beaten all of us at poker. I found an ugly, but appropriate, second hand summer
dress for the wedding, along with a hat and handbag to go with the new high heels. They were
married in Julian's undergraduate college, on a glorious day. During the speeches, Julian's friends
joked about his willingness to help out at home, and how he sometimes stopped off on the way
home to buy washing powder.
Julian had neglected to mention that it would be a civil ceremony, so some members of the group
only showed up later, in time for the champagne on the pristine lawn. The students and I were not
invited to the small, private dinner, so we headed back to the office for the afternoon. We all
returned in the evening for the dance party, but I could not bring myself to dance, even though
Julian graciously hinted that there were plenty of single men. It had been years since I was at a
wedding, and I was happy for Julian, but I was feeling unwell. This was the last time I would see
many of the students.
John had been busy arranging a constant stream of visiting colleagues from North America. He
would sternly remind me of an upcoming seminar, transparently trying to impress upon me the
superiority of his professional skills. John liked to host casual seminars at the small whiteboard in
the common room, with no consideration to other groups in the department.
“Now look,” he would say to me, as I came in and sat down, “we need to be welcoming here. So be
nice.” Once John needed to clear the people from the table near the whiteboard. He turned to me
and said that I should watch how it was done, so I reminded him that professional waitresses know
how to move people, and he proudly replied that he had never had to do anything like that. A true
dude, John had no qualms about being himself in the presence of witnesses.
I had my eyes on a fantastic mathematics conference in Europe, at the start of October. Brent was
kind enough to permit me conference funding through Judie's office, but I was supposed to front up
with the funds myself, and claim a refund later, so it was impossible for me to go. I could not risk
arriving in New Zealand with no money in my pocket.
The Templeton Foundation were funding an invitation only cosmology conference, not far from the
science area. I tried to gain admission by actually going over to the lecture hall, but was turned
away at the door after giving the secretary my name. A mathematics professor, who was in the
know, told me they would discuss whether or not the multiverse was actually science.
The multiverse was now mainstream thinking in cosmology. Based on an old idea from quantum

mechanics, namely the branching of possibilities after an event, the multiverse described a quantum
cosmos in which certain observable parameters, possibly particle masses, were ultimately
unknowable. It was popular with Intelligent Design advocates, because it left room for the
unknowable whims of God, and popular with string theorists, as a convenient background for their
faith. There would be no easy way out of this mess.
Given the observational evidence, astrophysicists and astronomers were happy to take alternatives
seriously, but theorists rather less so. Unfortunately, it was the theorists that would be responsible
for considering my job applications.

Chapter 13

Filling the gaps in my Oxford experience, I went to an evening chamber concert at the Sheldonian
Theatre on Broad St. Built to a Roman design by Christopher Wren, and completed in 1668, the
round Sheldonian hosts graduation ceremonies and other University events. As was my custom, I
arrived very early and watched the ticket sellers set themselves up at the door.
A very old man, who could see that I was waiting for the concert, walked over to speak to me,
telling me that he had been given a ticket at a heavily discounted rate.
“It's all about who you know,” he winked, to which I sadly replied, “Unfortunately, yes.”
“Do you mind if I talk to you?” he asked, concerned that he might be causing offence. He had lived
in Oxford since before I was born, teaching for many years at a suburban school. It was an
unusually clear night, and the details on the walls of Balliol and Trinity stood out even to my poor
sight. We admired the colours of the darkening sky.
“The city looks different nowadays,” he said, meaning that the air was cleaner than it used to be, but
I could not help surmising that his health was failing. “When I walk past Magdalen now, in the
afternoon, there is something about the colours, on the walls and in the sky, and all the way down
High St. It does not seem real.” He sighed. It was obvious that I would not understand.
The cheapest seats were the best in the house, being benches behind and above the stalls. As the
early bird, I could sit right beside the empty chancellor's chair, surveying the scene. Mrs Laughlin
came in with a friend and sat below, but there was nobody else that I knew.
One warm afternoon I ran into Etienne outside the department, as I often did, because he liked to
walk and think. He was struggling with the new family life, but in a good mood. We were joined by
a few others, including Mahtab. They were discussing smoking habits.
“So you don't smoke?” Mahtab asked me, realising by now that I didn't. “So not cool,” she
continued, taking a drag.
“Well,” I replied, “I don't smoke so that when I run out of money I don't really feel like shit.”
“Oh, so food is more important then,” Mahtab realised, seemingly not bothered at all by my
circumstances, for which I suppose I only had myself to blame. Mahtab had a good sense of
humour, but I was not amused. Etienne was amused by what he called my nihilism. I was beginning
to doubt once more that I was actually in Oxford.
The day for my final dinner with Herbert arrived. We met in the lodge, punctually as always, at ten
to seven. Much to my astonishment, and Herbert's embarrassment, it turned out that there was yet
another private dining room here and we were to dine alone, although this circumstance was simply
a matter of chance. There were many fellows at such a college, but few of them took regular

advantage of the college meals in summer.
We left our belongings on the chairs in the common room, and our waiter found us each a glass of
fine French wine. Herbert suggested that we drink in the courtyard, where we sat on a garden bench.
A few people walked by, but I barely noticed them. The construction works had all been completed
and the college was at its grandest, ready for the approaching term.
Herbert confessed that he had been chairing an important national committee lately, and I could see
that he was now trying, impossibly, to relax. I wanted so much to enjoy this moment and to listen to
everything Herbert had to say, since he was finally being himself, but I was too painfully aware of
my impending fate. I had to try hard not to appear upset as my eyes wandered up to the decorative
stone work high on the courtyard walls.
We enjoyed a pleasant three course meal, with Herbert sitting at the head of the long table and me to
his right, in the proper manner for a fellow and his guest. The walls of this room were mostly lined
with sketches of old college stewards, but an original portrait of the founding queen sat proudly
opposite the fireplace. Herbert demanded a cheese plate to finish and then lit the gas in the open
fireplace, for the evenings were cool again now. He started talking about his background, basic
things about which I had never dared to ask.
It turned out that Herbert was not a climber, but an ice axe and crampons man, as I had suspected.
Herbert recalled being unimpressed with the estimated walking times on Kiwi tracks, so I told him
that no self respecting Kiwi mountaineer would go anywhere near such tracks, and I finally got
around to mentioning one of my own impressive mountaineering feats. Perhaps I should have told
him that I had climbed to a far higher altitude than the summit of Kilimanjaro, but there would be
no pleasure in beating my chest. I invited Herbert to visit the Southern Alps again one day, in the
unlikely event that he ever passed that way.
We each dragged a heavy leather chair across to the fire and rested our feet on the safety bar. I felt
at home here by the fire, for I had been raised in an old Sydney house in the 1970s, where the open
fire had been lit every winter's day.
“So what happened to the English,” I asked. “Did they just wake up one day and decide to be
Herbert thought for a moment. “I think they just went soft,” he said, as if he was no longer one of
I could have sat there for hours, but Herbert had warned me that he was busy later, as usual, and
soon I politely said that I would be off. For the last time we walked in the dark out a back gate of
the college and into the city streets, parting near the southern end of St Giles. I thanked Herbert
sincerely for the kindness he had shown me, and for a brief moment he hung his head in shame.

Herbert was travelling to the States shortly. I would not see him again.
Priam scheduled my physics seminar for a Thursday, and it was listed on his university's website. I
walked to the train station early, and hopped on the north bound train. I had spent the day before
proudly avoiding my commitment to a group seminar by preparing my slides. In gratitude to both
Herbert and Priam, I was determined to do a good job. I had chosen to speak about new ideas
related to my thesis work on particle physics. This meant introducing some heavy mathematics,
which wasn't something that a group of experimentalists tended to enjoy, but I knew that my
enthusiasm would help carry it off.
It was a modern campus, in a pleasantly forested neighbourhood, reminding me a lot of Australian
campuses that I had known. When I found the large physics department, I was directed upstairs to
Priam's office. We spoke a little about my recent paper, and related work, and then we met the rest
of the group in the corridor and wandered over to the cafe for lunch. It was a friendly crowd, a
marked contrast to my Oxford group. Then I was given a desk to work at for an hour or so before
the seminar. This was how it was meant to be. I was being treated like a professional.
Priam had warned me that the seminar would probably only be attended by the group, around eight
people, but this was all that I could expect so I really did not mind. In the end, twice as many
showed up and Priam seemed pleased as he put out more chairs in the small room. I rambled on,
and there were many questions, but no doubt I failed to convey the true relevance of such obscure
mathematics. One can only try, as I had often done before.
I thanked Priam for a lovely day and we went to the office to pick up an expense form, so that I
might claim all my spending for the day. Then I walked across the road to the taxi rank, grinning
from ear to ear, and yet still sad. Would this be the only day of my life that the physicists officially
treated me like a serious scientist? I suppose we always want more than we can ever have.
There remained only one thing to do before I left Oxford. On my last Friday, I went to the opera at
Covent Garden in London. I lingered over breakfast and returned to my room to dress, in time for a
midday train to London. I had spent thirty pounds at a second hand shop in Summertown on a
stunning, long sequined black dress, which would bare my shoulders. The make up was carefully
applied, and I tied back my hair with a feathered scrunchie and sprayed it into place. The heels
would hurt by the time I reached Covent Garden, but I didn't care.
The housekeeper Clara, who was also an opera fan, was suitably admiring. She helped with the tight
zip along my back, and took photos of me at the door of the house on my way out. The first woman
that I passed in the street eyed me from head to toe, and told me that it was a wonderful dress.
Fortunately, I was wearing a jacket to keep the chilly October breeze at bay, for the zip only lasted
to the Oxford station. I stood for half an hour in the ladies toilets waiting for a few, kind local

women to hunt down safety pins from the station shops. We managed to pin the dress so that one
could not see the problem so long as I wore the jacket, but I was overly conscious of the barely
visible bottommost pin for the rest of the day.
I was still early, but went out to the platform to wait for my train. Atsuo passed by, and would not
have recognised me if I had not called out his name. He liked taking day trips out of town, and he
was on his way to Bath. I had no knowledge of London, having forgotten previous brief visits from
long ago, and found Covent Garden by glancing at the subway maps as I went, careful to do so
casually and not betray my foreignness.
Today I would hear the familiar, but beloved, Tristan and Isolde. The opera house doors would not
open until 3.30, so I had a leisurely lunch at a pub on the mall near the markets and I amused myself
sniffing the hand made soaps. Then I purchased a classic old recording of Das Rheingold in the
opera house music store, where the salesman bowed neatly to his first glittering Wagner fan of the
There was an hour to wander about the halls of the opera house before we had to take our seats. I
splashed out on a three pound orange juice, and spoke to a number of other beautifully dressed
single women. I was pleased with the seat I had selected, on the left side of the balcony, where I
could see clearly over the heads of those in the stalls. The production was hopelessly decadent in its
cocky minimalism, but the singing was utterly unforgettable.
Used to inhabiting the cultural vacuum of poverty and isolation, I had not been to an opera for over
ten years. For some time I had been living out of a suitcase, carrying only one or two CDs, which I
would listen to over and over again. Concerned that I might not be able to concentrate on the music,
lost in my anxiety for the future, I was pleased that the day had been a success. How could I think I
was anything but one of the luckiest people in the world.
On Saturday I cleaned out my office, leaving only a few papers to work on the next day. As I was
leaving the building, I ran into Mahtab. The last time I had seen her was earlier that week, when she
and Brent had arrived at the pub at 11.30pm, by which time I would usually have left.
They had not been invited to a farewell dinner for Etienne, Catherine, me and others at Craig's
apartment. Craig was a hotshot new postdoc in the group, and his girlfriend was a brilliant young
mathematical physicist. I liked both of them a lot and it had been a really nice evening, but now
Brent and Mahtab had shown up, with a couple of senior colleagues. I was furious at Brent and
Mahtab's indifference to my situation, so I left the pub soon after they arrived.
This explained Mahtab's annoyance now. “So are you in a better mood today?” she asked. I hissed
at her, continuing to struggle with my jacket. “So when are you leaving?” she asked, insistently. I
told her I was leaving on Tuesday, and at that she tossed her head in satisfaction and walked away. I

never saw her or Brent again.
Mahtab had no reason to be concerned about my circumstances. Under the modern business model,
according to which science operated, universities employed most researchers on short term
contracts. People came and people went. The balanced book was written in terms of the valued
commodities: published papers and prestige amongst peers.
Oxford University would like to claim that its modern student admission processes work well to
overcome bias, but looking around at the hordes of pale, male faces one finds this difficult to
believe. In 2000, for instance, Laura Spence applied to study at Oxford. Laura came from a state
school in working class Whitley Bay, but had achieved the highest possible grades in ten subjects.
Hoping to study medicine, she went to Magdalen College for an interview and was turned down.
They said that she did not show potential.
This developed into a major political incident when Gordon Brown, who later became Prime
Minister, accused Oxford of employing outdated selection methods. In this case, the University
flattly denied any discrimination, clearly demonstrating that Brown had failed to consider the
relevant facts regarding Spence's interview. Nonetheless, after studying at Harvard, Spence
eventually graduated in medicine at Cambridge in 2008, with distinction.
Looking at those pale faces, I wondered whether or not a thorough statistical study had ever been
carried out. Education policy in the UK has undergone significant changes since the Spence affair,
with the aim of widening the participation of underrepresented groups. A 2006 government review
concludes that students entering higher education have to learn to Play the Game, which is more of
an adjustment for non traditional students.
Great. That will solve everything.
According to the diversity statistics of the University of Oxford, available online, in 2008 the grand
total of female professors in the mathematical, physical and life sciences was two. I believe that I
met one of them at Herbert's college, a biology professor. At the level of lecturer, around 15% are
women. Growth is not guaranteed. In Computer Science worldwide, the number of women
graduating has actually fallen dramatically since the 1980s.
Perhaps it would be for the best that I left this strange place, although it might be the only home I
would ever know. As Scottish Callum said one evening, whenever he sees a group of particularly
arrogant young Englishmen at an Oxford pub, he just wants to wallop the lot of them.

Chapter 14

The deep crisis in theoretical physics lurked behind my despair, forgotten for the moment. I had
earned enough respect to do my own research, but nobody had noticed. This was not mathematics,
where a theorem was a theorem. Physics conferences often resembled fashion parades, and
moderating influences were absent, like in a ballroom devoid of women, a scene of mesmerising
On the final Sunday I arrived in the office early and put my few remaining belongings into my bag.
I left the desk clean and tidy and then started writing a blog post, with tears streaming down my
cheeks. Nobody was allowed to see me like this, so I left before anyone else arrived, remembering
to place the filing cabinet key back in the lock for the next resident.
I looked a mess, but Oxford was city enough that nobody really cared. It was the day that the
students arrived at the start of the autumn term. There was heavy traffic, and crowds were passing
through all the college gates. I was almost run over by an impatient parent as I tried, absent
mindedly, to cross a busy road. I had little money left now, needing to put aside a fair amount for
travelling expenses.
The chapel at St John's was deserted. I was glad that the bright youth were not religious. These
beautiful, ancient places of contemplation had been built for the likes of me, I thought. They were
not for those who would cling complacently to an obsolete patriarchy that could destroy the world. I
was alone again, so I could weep. I lay down for two hours on a cushioned pew near the altar, and
asked the bright images in the glass why they had forsaken me. Then I chided myself for forgetting
a past life that had not known this city at all, and tried to dry my swollen eyes.
In Oxford, so many people come and go again. “I am just one of those who pass through,” I
answered an inquiring stranger.
Could I not be grateful for the time I had been given? The sunlit images of a virgin mother mocked
me from above. The correct term for the opposite of a virgin mother is hag. I was not welcome in
this world.
On Monday I walked a little, before spending the rest of the day in bed, hoping that Tuesday would
never come. The high heels were thrown into a bin in the park. Clara didn't want them, and they
would only be dead weight where I was heading.
Breakfast on Tuesday was an ordinary affair. Mrs Laughlin came in to ask me when I would be off,
and to say goodbye. Atsuo headed off to work at the library, and the guests went off to do their
business. I finished packing my old case, and then I dragged it downstairs, one hour before I had to

Clara invited me to wait in the loungeroom, so I quickly browsed the bookshelves for something to
read. Ah, how appropriate. There was Virginia Woolf's classic A Room Of One's Own, which begins
with the feelings of an independent woman in Oxford, being chased from the fellows' lawns. Not
much had changed in the intervening decades. I sat in a roomy armchair, turning on the light, for it
was a dreary, dark morning. When it was time for my taxi to arrive I left the book on the chair,
hugged Clara goodbye and dragged the suitcase outside.
Mrs Laughlin was about to get into a car. She turned about to say goodbye once more, standing
close to the door of the car with her walking cane. It rained lightly and the street was quiet. Then, as
Mrs Laughlin stooped to move into her car, my taxi appeared and pulled into the kerb. At the
Oxford bus station, I stood alone amongst a group of departing visitors. I waited impatiently for ten
minutes, until the airport bus driver was ready to load my heavy suitcase, and then hopped on
What followed was a 12 hour flight from Heathrow to Los Angeles, a two hour wait in transit,
another 12 hour flight from Los Angeles to Auckland, and then a connecting flight to Christchurch,
where I dragged the broken suitcase past the taxis and shuttles to the suburban bus, which would
take me to the bus stops in town, from where I could head further south on another bus to Tekapo,
where Alex would pick me up and drive me to the observatory on Mt John. My final month's salary
from Oxford would allow me to stay here for a while. Later, I would head even further south, to the
mountain town of Wanaka, where I reside once more.
There was no particular reason to come here. There was simply nowhere else to go. I have had little
to do with my family since my undergraduate days, decades ago. My sister and brother now each
have two young children, my father is long dead, and my mother's fortunes have waned. As always,
they expect me to fulfil my duties to society.
I tried to think of any men that I knew of, who had come so far and then been denied a future. I
suspected there were none. According to the house rules, Brent had done more than enough for me,
and it was I who had chosen Hell.
I have evaded waitressing jobs since returning to New Zealand all those months ago, even
supposedly glamourous ones. I have not yet signed the next contract with society. For a little while,
I wandered in the mountains again. There was a brief trip to Australia for a conference at the end of
the year, where I finally met my American blogging colleague, but no funding remains now. At this
conference, an institute director from France said that he might give me a job, but he knows
Leonard Cotton, and I was not surprised when he never contacted me.
At my age, in this time, and with an itinerant background that I cannot hide, it is very difficult for
me to find any kind of employment. Fortunately, I live in a country that will not permit me to

actually starve to death, so long as I cooperate. I am working on my lost smile, so that I may face a
prospective restaurant employer with some semblance of normality, and a sparse CV with some
vague reference to jobs from long ago.
The published paper finally appeared in the journal online, and another short paper will soon be
published too, thus eliminating the main reason I have been given for rejection for many years. But
I do not expect the job offers to start rolling in. There are always new excuses, and the old ones are
quickly forgetten. They say there is no age discrimination either, but no one lives in that fantasy
My friend Kathryn was here in Wanaka. I stayed with her for a while, but I did not want to linger
and impose my gloom upon the household. “You should find yourself a rich man,” she joked.
My email box was now usually empty, although Benito emailed to ask after me. I emailed Herbert
to tell him, although he was not at all concerned, that I was all right, meaning not dead yet, but then
he replied with thoughtless encouragement to continue giving lectures in particle physics, which is
plain impossible given my remote location. Further correspondence seemed pointless.
Who knows in what imaginary world I might return to the city of dreaming spires, a real home. I am
living in poverty once again, with few belongings, too poor to go anywhere. Luxuries like a
personal internet account are an impossible strain on my budget. Hundreds of job applications in
physics, in Europe, North America and Asia, have yielded not one offer, and there is no point in
trying further without good letters from at least three respectable professionals familiar with my
work. In this category there are no women at all.
My current room looks out through a row of poplars, southwards across an unused paddock. There
are frosts most mornings now. I speak to almost no one and am sustained only by anger and habit.
The norwester howls down the lake for days on end, making it an effort to walk across the dam
from the highway, where hitchhikers like me are set down.
The nearby streets are lined with empty houses for sale. Many are owned by city dwellers, whose
fortunes have recently fallen but whose greed is seemingly unmodified. When I have to hitch, the
most respectable people remain reluctant to stop. They say I should find myself a sensible job,
cleaning or waitressing. I wrote to the Minister of Science, and he replied proudly that the new
budget would improve the science funding situation in New Zealand. It did not.
Only the ghost keeps an eye on the condemning indifference. With one ear, the ghost listens to their
sighs of relief, as they watch us die. The hag has no power, they think, and our world is safe. No
powerhorse of The Patriarchy need yield his place. But then the ghost is drawn away, towards the
distant music of an unknown future, caring not what is destroyed.
The situation in physics is little altered. Mathematicians and experimentalists are occasionally kind,

but the professional theorists maintain a steady silence towards the likes of me. Researchers are
employed on the basis of publication records.
The Large Hadron Collider in Europe has started collecting data, but it will be a few years before
substantial results are released. Cosmologists persist in advocating standard fallacies, despite a
wealth of evidence against old views. In theoretical physics, a few traditional string theorists still
make claims to have all the answers despite having none at all, and despite mathematical proofs to
the contrary. Like they say, science advances one death at a time no matter the circumstances, and
no matter who dies.
Let me care only about the ghosts in the machines, the final arbiters of all opinion. The only
question is, how to live.