Physics by the Numbers
by Stephen Granade
Peifan had come and gone before Nevaeh reached the lab office the next morning. Nevaeh had hoped to say goodbye, but she supposed that if an algorithm had guillotined her graduate school career like a French royalist’s head, she’d have snuck away, too. Peifan had raked his class notes into a trash can that had overflowed and spilled his discarded plastic binders across the floor. He’d also left his poster of bar magnets on the wall, iron filings tracing arcs of magnetism that connected them.
She tossed her phone in her desk drawer and dug around for a Phillips screwdriver. Peifan’s computer had the best graphics card. She meant to claim it for her simulations before her labmate Mason arrived and joined in rifling through Peifan’s discards.
“Both of you are safe.” Dr. Scott gestured at Nevaeh and Mason with his food truck taco, nearly spilling fish onto the sidewalk. “My revised funding still supports two graduate students.”
The US federal science agencies had updated their algorithm that decided how productive universities were. For the second year in a row, they’d cut funding to Nevaeh’s school based on its results.
“It’ll slow down finishing our paper,” Mason said around a mouth full of quesadilla. Cheese dribbled down his chin.
“Peifan was the best at tuning the laser,” Nevaeh added. She dug her own taco out of an overfull box. Dr. Scott had bought dinner, so she hadn’t scrimped on her order.
Dr. Scott nodded. “We’ll make do. But we need results. Don’t forget, we think the funding agencies rank us based on submissions, not just publications.”
As if Nevaeh could ever let herself forget.
“Gin,” Mason said, laying his cards face up on the wobbly table between him and Nevaeh.
She swore under her breath. She hadn’t seen it coming. She’d misread him. “Knew I should’ve knocked earlier.”
“Teach you not to be so careful, Vay.” As Nevaeh gathered the cards, Mason continued, “I heard Whittaker’s high energy lab lost three. That’s eight this year, including Peifan.”
Nevaeh ran the numbers as she shuffled. Twenty percent of the graduate students dismissed in two years, all thanks to the physics department’s own algorithm that racked and stacked them. “I didn’t expect him to get cut. He crushed it in classes.”
“And in the lab,” Mason said. “But he has a girlfriend. The algorithm thought she distracted him, maybe.”
That matched Nevaeh’s guess, though it was only a guess. The department wouldn’t say what data they fed into the algorithm. That left Nevaeh and her fellow students to search for the algorithm’s signal hidden in the noise.
Nevaeh dealt cards. “Dr. Scott told me our scores weren’t anywhere near the cutoff.”
“He would tell you that. You’re not in trouble. You get a bonus for being a black woman in physics.”
Nevaeh paused. “What’d you say?”
“Nothing,” Mason muttered.
Nevaeh threw up her hands. “What the hell, Mason?”
Mason’s eyes widened. “Shh! Someone might hear.”
They fell silent, listening for footsteps outside the cramped janitor’s closet. They’d moved their lunch-time card games into it a few months after the department’s algorithms went live and Dr. Scott made an off-hand mention that playing cards might lower her and Mason’s rankings.
Nevaeh had considered giving up playing, but Mason spoke more freely during their games. She needed to know what he was thinking.
Like his assumption that she had an unfair advantage because of who she was. That went beyond his usual lack of home training. Nevaeh hadn’t known he felt that way.
No, that wasn’t true. She hadn’t let herself know.
She hid her anger and finished the deal. “Draw,” she said, as polite as she could manage. She wondered why she bothered.
The hell of it was, she knew why she bothered. She loved physics.
Nevaeh loved how simple equations gave rise to complex behaviors. She loved how experiments, imperfect as they were, helped them understand those behaviors. She loved being part of a community that expanded the frontiers of human knowledge. She loved knowing a little about a lot of physics, and a lot about her little piece.
After she and Mason finished playing, Nevaeh centered herself by realigning the experiment. Mirrors covered the optical table, black metal sunflowers whose faces reflected ruby-red laser light. Each mirror had two screws to adjust its angle. The mirrors used to stay aligned for days on end, but the physics building’s ongoing asbestos abatement had forced Dr. Scott’s lab into a newer, too-small room with poor temperature control.
Mason hated aligning the experiment. He called it wasted time. Nevaeh had turned it into a meditation. The whir of vacuum pumps settled her jangling thoughts as she bent light to her will, folding and re-folding it into a glittering cat’s cradle.
Nevaeh was halfway through the process when Mason returned from his therapy session. She wasn’t supposed to know that he’d been to therapy. He claimed it was an ongoing appointment for his bum knee, trusting HIPAA regulations to keep the truth from the algorithm, but he’d confessed to Nevaeh one drunken night. Later he’d begged her not to tell. She’d kept the secret ever since, a knife he’d accidentally handed her.
“Here,” Mason said. Nevaeh took the offered chocolate chip cookie–a peace offering? Mason must have snagged it from the conference room. The department set a pile out every Tuesday afternoon to encourage grad students to socialize. No one stayed to talk any more, though.
Mason’s help made the alignment go faster. They struggled for a while with the parts that Peifan had always handled, but they muddled through.
Light from the hallway fell across the optical table and glinted from its metal top. Nevaeh’s roommate, Brianna, stood in the open door. “Is that science I smell?”
“Sure, Brianna, come on in, ruin the experiment,” Mason mock-grumbled.
Brianna let the door close behind her. “I’m done for the day. What time will you be done, Nevaeh? It’s sautéed mushroom night.”
Brianna was forever making toppings for their ramen. Nevaeh gave a one-shouldered shrug. “Six, maybe?” She glanced at Mason. “Meet back here at seven-thirty?” Mason nodded.
“Always working, you two.” Brianna was in the English grad department. Her research fellowship wasn’t at risk. The humanities didn’t use algorithms to cull students.
She stepped closer to Nevaeh’s end of the table. “How’s your atom smashing going?”
“Atom trapping,” Nevaeh corrected.
Brianna leaned in to whisper, “I love it when you talk sexy science to me.”
Even though Nevaeh steeled herself not to react, a smile crept onto her face. The lab camera watched them, feeding Nevaeh’s every action into a neural network. “See you at six,” she said.
Mason watched Brianna go, then gave Nevaeh a level stare.
Nevaeh wasn’t the only one holding a knife.
Nevaeh’s phone dinged partway through her morning workout. A news alert from her customized trawl.
The alert could wait. She was running too fast on the treadmill to read it. Besides, it had been a long three weeks since Peifan left, and she needed the stress relief that exercise brought. Running was one of her few remaining solitary pleasures.
She powered through the rest of her thirty minutes. Enough time to meet the government’s guidelines for physical activity; not enough to be flagged as wasteful. When the treadmill slowed to a stop, she let it carry her backwards, careful not to hit the wall behind her.
Nevaeh swiped open her phone to report her exercise. More grist for the algorithm. But the news alert distracted her. The federal science agencies were re-adjusting budgets to “address new realities.”
They’d decrease funding for basic science like hers. And then they’d run their algorithms to re-evaluate every existing grant.
Her heart pounded, and not just from her workout.
When Nevaeh knocked on Dr. Scott’s office doorway, he looked up from his computer. “Are you here about the funding re-appraisal?” At Nevaeh’s nod, he continued, “I figured you’d notice. Sit.”
Nevaeh edged past piles of boxes to the lone chair in front of Dr. Scott’s desk. He’d had to move offices to avoid asbestos, too, and he hadn’t yet unpacked his books. “Did you know this was coming?”
“No. I found out an hour ago, just like you.”
“What’s their game?”
Dr. Scott sighed and took off his reading glasses. He was only in his late thirties, but he said he’d always had bad eyes. “They say their new metrics support more frequent progress evaluation. They’ll run their funding algorithm every month from now on.”
“That’s bullshit!” The words escaped, reaching the listening cameras. “I apologize, Dr. Scott. What I meant to say is that I have concerns about this approach.”
“You have concerns. I think it’s bullshit.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “But it’s bullshit we have to deal with. Funding’s always been at the government’s whim. Now that whim’s been measured and codified.”
“But what do we do?”
“We’ve got two weeks to submit our paper before the new evaluation. So we’ll do the only productive thing we can: keep our heads down and do good science.”
Easy for Dr. Scott to say. He’d secured a vanishingly-rare tenure track position. He didn’t have to study shadows cast on a cave wall to guess how he was being judged.
“Besides,” he added, “you’re a good graduate student.”
What did the algorithm consider to be a good graduate student? She bet it hadn’t been trained on people like her. Being good enough wasn’t good enough, not in her case.
“Heads down,” Nevaeh said, as if she agreed. “Do good science.”
Nevaeh and Brianna risked a party that Friday night to distract Nevaeh from the upcoming funding reallocation. They cleaned the apartment and had a pre-party meal of ramen made with miso to offset splurging on bottles of five-dollar wine. Then, before anyone arrived, they moved their futon and rickety chairs against the wall. They turned up music and danced together, a solved two-body problem, until the first knock at the door.
Brianna ran through her spiel for each new arrival. “Shoes by the door, booze on the counter, and no posts!” She thumped the sign on the door for emphasis: SOCIAL-MEDIA-FREE ZONE. The last thing the physicists needed was the algorithm seeing a post on Blaster about them drinking.
Their apartment filled until people spilled out onto the tiny balcony despite the day’s waning heat. Two groups formed, Brianna’s fellow English students distinct from Nevaeh’s physics mates. Nevaeh and Brianna bridged the groups as best they could.
At one point, Nevaeh’s friend Lin cornered her. “Hey, your roommate. You seen her?”
Brianna was in the kitchen end of the main room, deep in conversation with one of the three generic English bros she could barely stand. She punctuated her points with her hands, sloshing wine in a clear plastic cup. Nevaeh always knew where Brianna was, the same way she knew where her limbs were, proprioception extended to another’s body.
Lin followed Nevaeh’s gaze. “Right.” He shifted from foot to foot. “Reason I’m asking is. I mean. Is she seeing anyone?”
Cold stole up Nevaeh’s body. “She hasn’t said if she is, but–”
“Thanks, Vay.” Lin clapped Nevaeh on her shoulder and worked his way through the crowd.
Nevaeh took refuge by Brianna’s rats. Most people avoided their large cage, giving her the space she needed.
Nevaeh didn’t recognize the man, so she guessed he was in Brianna’s English program. He had dark, wavy hair the color of the stout he offered to her.
Why not? She took the bottle and clinked it against his.
Logan tilted his head. “Bri’s roommate. The physicist.”
“Cool,” Logan said. “What kind of physics do you do?”
“I measure gravity.”
“Nine point eight meters per second squared,” Logan immediately replied.
Nevaeh’s eyebrows climbed. “Someone paid attention in science class.”
“That’s me.” Logan put his fists on his hips and struck a heroic pose. “Science English Man.”
“But that’s an approximation. Gravity changes depending on where you are on Earth.”
“Okay, so how do you measure gravity?”
“We use lasers to toss atoms up and watch them fall.” Nevaeh’s hands traced an arc. “It’s called an atomic fountain. Time how long they take to fall a known distance and you know how fast they accelerated.”
“That sounds like science fiction.”
“I know! Isn’t it cool?”
“Exciting stuff, huh?”
Nevaeh’s face heated. “Sorry, I get carried away.”
Brianna materialized from the crowd and linked arms with Nevaeh. “Hey, don’t apologize for liking physics.”
“Then I should explain spin-squeezed states!” Nevaeh immediately replied. “We beat the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, kind of.”
“Oh,” Logan said, “that’s the maybe-dead cat, right?”
“Enough,” Brianna laughed. She pulled Nevaeh out of the main room and into the dark hallway that led to the bathroom and bedroom. “That boy was flirting with you so hard.”
Nevaeh blinked. “Was he?”
“Yeah.” A smile danced on her lips. “You always miss the signs.”
Nevaeh checked for people, then leaned her weight against Brianna. The beer bolstered her courage. “Only one person I want flirting with me.”
Brianna stole a kiss. “Thought you were flirting with me, talking all that sexy science.”
“Zeeman splitting.” Nevaeh’s lips brushed across Brianna’s. “Bose Einstein condensate.”
Brianna’s arms snaked around Nevaeh and pulled them together.
A flushing toilet pushed them back apart. Nevaeh was glad the darkness hid her expression.
Mason stepped out of the bathroom. The triangle of light behind him lit the three of them. Finally, Mason fake-laughed. “Get a room.”
After he left, Brianna and Nevaeh leaned against opposite walls. Nevaeh spoke first. “I told you not to invite him.”
But he could still use that guess against her. She might have to sabotage his ranking first.
She hated this so much.
Brianna’s head thumped a soft rhythm against the wall. “What if I dragged you out there and kissed you in front of everyone?”
“What would happen, Nevaeh?”
Nevaeh crossed her arms. “The algorithm culled people who were dating. We think it views that as an unnecessary distraction–”
“You think!” Brianna lowered her voice. “Correlation, not causation. Isn’t that what you’re always on about?”
“Correlation is all I’ve got! I can’t risk…” She gestured helplessly. “Physics is all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
“Okay.” Brianna pushed off the wall. “Okay.” She moved back into the crowd, waving to a friend. Cheerfulness dropped around her like a cloak.
A knife didn’t care who it cut.
Nevaeh put the finishing touches on their draft paper. The results weren’t everything Nevaeh had hoped for, but Dr. Scott had declared them good enough for now.
“You want one more read-through?” she called to Mason.
“Nah. I can always blame you for any errors.”
He’d been passive-aggressive all week, ha-ha joking, only not. But she didn’t take the bait. She suspected the algorithm rewarded overt shows of teamwork. She could still beat him on points.
She emailed the paper to Dr. Scott for his comments. Based on her past experience, Dr. Scott would respond within the hour.
After two passed, she stopped by his office. “Dr. Scott?” He stared blankly at his boxes. “Dr. Scott?”
He came back from wherever he’d been. “The department’s going to apply metrics to us non-tenured faculty.”
Nevaeh’s mind raced, but the only thing she could think to say was, “They told you your rank?” Silly, the things she focused on when panicked.
Dr. Scott wouldn’t meet Nevaeh’s eyes. “I’m not sure if it’s the out-of-department collaboration or having had three students culled.”
Words pushed on her lips, bubbles trying to escape. How he now got to have her experience. How he should keep his head down and do good science.
Saying so wouldn’t help beyond a brief thrill of release, and could hurt. She still needed his support. “I’m sorry.”
His breath sighed out. “I owe you feedback on our paper. I’ll have that for you within the hour.”
Nevaeh didn’t tell Mason what Dr. Scott had said. Let him find out on his own.
The days after submitting a paper were always slow. The burst of energy required to wrap up writing left them all limp dishrags. Nevaeh spent Monday in her shared office downloading physics papers, opening them, and closing them. That way the algorithm would think she’d read them.
Her phone trilled. Notifications from Blaster. The department encouraged interacting with “the public” on social media, though not to excess. Like everything else she was judged on, it was a balancing act.
But she hadn’t posted yet today, and engagement on her Friday post had trailed to nothing.
When she opened the app, she froze.
It was the best photo of them she’d ever seen. She and Brianna held hands at the end of the department’s long hallway. The glass doors to the outside haloed their heads, bowed together as if in prayer.
The problem was, she hadn’t taken the picture, let alone blasted it out to the world.
Return blasts had filled her mentions, a plethora of heart-eyed emojis and “Who’s the hottie with you?”
Hands shaking, she took a screenshot and then deleted the post. Had the algorithm seen? She and Mason had debated how often it trawled their feeds. That idle speculation was now of supreme importance.
She closed the lab door behind her gently, though she wanted to slam it. Mason watched her enter but didn’t say a word. Red crept up his face, washing away any doubts Nevaeh had left.
She held her phone out for Mason. “You won’t believe this post I saw.” Voice level, as if discussing when to change the vacuum pump’s oil. Nothing to draw the algorithm’s attention.
“I thought so. Though I didn’t take it. Didn’t post it, either.”
Mason turned back to the optics table. “It came from your account.”
“I think someone borrowed my phone from my desk drawer. Figured out how to unlock it.”
“I’ve warned you about using a four-digit passcode.”
Her hand was on his shoulder before she realized it. He reared back like she might punch him.
Would she punch him?
Not in front of the cameras. Never in front of the cameras.
She didn’t need to hit him physically. “How’s your knee doing?”
The words sank home. You wouldn’t, Mason’s face said. “Pretty good.”
“Only the school clinic called last month. Said you’d stopped coming.”
“I…I’ve changed clinics.” A terrible, obvious lie. He wasn’t used to hiding himself away like Nevaeh was. “Can we talk about this later? Away from the department, maybe?”
“No. Don’t think so. You’re not using the school doctors any more? The ones our insurance covers?” She pitched her voice to carry to the listening cameras. The algorithm was so very good at teasing out hidden connections, after all.
Sweat dampened his hair. “It’s–you know. Doctors. Sometimes–you need a good fit. Someone who will work with you.”
“Work with you. Not against you, right?”
His fear gave way to anger. “I was leveling the playing field! You’re the one attacking me!”
All she had to do was mention Mason’s therapy out loud.
The coffee that she’d called breakfast ate at her stomach. Was this who she was? Someone who would sink a knife into someone else?
She didn’t like this version of her.
He’d tried to ruin her graduate school career. He deserved everything she could bring on his head.
She didn’t deserve to be this person.
“Where are you going?” Mason shouted after her. “To Dr. Scott?”
She made it to the bathroom stall before sobbing. No cameras in here, not yet. Her whole body convulsed as if a fever were breaking.
To be a physicist, she’d twisted and contorted herself to fit people’s expectations. She’d let Dr. Scott, the department, the algorithm put walls around her until she could see no way out.
No, she was done lying to herself. She’d seen a way out. She’d been too afraid to take it.
She dug out her phone.
Nevaeh had composed herself by the time Brianna arrived. “What gives? You send a cryptic text and then don’t answer mine?” Brianna’s face was flushed from running across campus, her hair in disarray.
She was perfect.
“This’ll only take a minute. Let me talk with Dr. Scott and then we can blow this popsicle stand.”
Brianna reached out to Nevaeh, then let her hand fall without touching her. “You’re being super extra weird, roomie.”
“I’ll tell you everything in a minute.”
Dr. Scott glanced up from his computer at their entrance. “Hey, Vay. And…Vay’s roommate?” He and Brianna had only met in passing. Nevaeh had kept them apart.
“Yes, sir,” Bri said. “Brianna Summers.”
“What do you need, Vay?”
So many things. It was time she started asking for them. “We need to talk about Mason. But before that–” The camera watched, unblinking. Nevaeh took Brianna’s hand. It was ice cold, but began to warm in hers. “Let me introduce my girlfriend.”
For their first real date, Nevaeh took Brianna to an Indian locavore restaurant she’d always meant to try. It meant a week of unflavored ramen, but Nevaeh refused Brianna’s half-hearted protests about the cost. They kept their phones in their purses, ignoring the flood of notifications. Nevaeh had tagged Brianna in the re-posted picture.
They had a lovely evening out, and an even lovelier evening in, but afterward Nevaeh couldn’t sleep. She tugged on clothes and kissed Brianna on the forehead. “Gonna go to the lab.” Brianna mumbled an okay without fully waking up.
The laser was already on, ruby light in the dark lab. Nevaeh braced herself to deal with Mason, but Dr. Scott was the one adjusting mirrors. “It’s been too long since I’ve actually done any lab work,” he said, ducking his head.
“Try not to mess things up. You know how advisors are.”
Dr. Scott answered her grin with one of his own.
They worked in companionable silence punctuated with occasional murmured instructions. When they finished the alignment, Dr. Scott said, “I’ve put feelers out. Dr. Lynn has room in his quantum information lab. He’d like to talk to you. And of course Dr. Severin would snap you up in a heartbeat, if you’re willing to move into the engineering department.”
“You don’t know that they’ll fire you.”
He didn’t respond to that. “I’ve also got contacts in industry, if you want to leave grad school. It’d be a terrible loss for the discipline, but…well.”
Nevaeh didn’t have energy for the future right now. “Let’s wait until the funding shakes out.”
The atom oven controller pinged. The experiment was ready.
“All right,” Dr. Scott said. “Let’s see what we’ll see.”
The oscilloscope sent their shadows across the optics table as they watched, waiting for a signal to rise from the noise.
Commentary for “Physics by the Numbers”
by Ben Kinney
Academia. That’s where I live, by day when I’m not helping pilot this little pod. It’s a very strange world, and it’s very rare for me to see a story that really captures what it’s like. It’s a place where the feedback cycles are very long; where your choices today might make or break something two years down the line. It’s a place that feels like a zero-sum game; because academic success is measured in status rather than money, one person’s victory is always another person’s loss. It’s a place that feels arbitrary; I cannot tell you how many times I’ve done exactly what a funding agency asked me to do, and for my labors, ended up with a worse evaluation.
Obviously, there are good things about academia. The sense of purpose, the chance to work among brilliant people, to expand the boundaries of human knowledge. We see glimpses of that, in Nevaeh’s excitement. But the heart of this story is the downsides.
How much worse will all these problems get, when algorithms make the judgments? If you follow the news on artificial intelligence, you might know how easily an algorithm can pick up on biases in the dataset. Feed it racist data, whether you intended to or not, and you get a racist algorithm. Artificial intelligence doesn’t make objective decisions – it just makes decisions faster, and lets us offload responsibility for what we’ve taught it.
But I asked the wrong question. It’s not, “how much worse will academia get, when algorithms make these judgments?” It’s, “Will algorithms make the rest of the world more like the bad parts of academia?”
We already live under the squeeze of algorithms and uncaring systems. We are tracked and quantified, and that data is shared for purposes unknown. So what choices do we make, beneath their eye? Do we shape our lives to meet their whim, optimizing and pruning in the hope that one more sacrifice will save us from the algorithm’s fickle judgment? Do we give up entirely, abandon all hope of graduate school or credit score? Maybe neither. Maybe the things we fear aren’t the things that will get us in the end, and trying to please the algorithm is a loser’s game. Maybe our only choice is do the hard work of finding that balance between putting in the effort for the work we care about, and being ourselves.
It might work out in the end. It might not. We can only try, and wait for the signal to rise from the noise.
About the Author
Stephen Granade is a physicist and writer living in Huntsville, Alabama, the town whose skyline includes a Saturn V rocket.
About the Narrator
Stephanie Malia Morris is a graduate of the 2017 Clarion West Writers Workshop, recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Award, and a 2019 Kimbilio Fellow. Her short fiction has appeared in FIYAH, Apex Magazine, Nightmare, and Pseudopod. She has narrated short fiction for the Escape Artists podcasts, Uncanny, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. You can find her online at stephaniemaliamorris.com or on Twitter at @smaliamorris.