Why I Boogied With a Black Hole

Dance Your Ph.D. Allowed Me to Turn My Doctoral Research Into Performance, and to Combine My Love of Art and Science

I’m dancing over and around four people lying face-up in a giant L-formation on the grass of Caltech’s Beckman Lawn, a place usually devoted to Frisbee gatherings. I’m wearing a bunny suit (a hooded, head-to-toe garment traditionally only seen inside a laboratory), and like me, my companions are dressed all in white. We stand out sharply against the green grass, and passers-by stop to stare.

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If we weren’t gyrating wildly to “The Humpty Dance” on repeat, we’d be staring, too. We’re all Caltech community members, and normally you can find us in labs, classrooms, and in front of computer screens. But today we are “dancing” my Ph.D., a 200-plus-page exploration of gravitational waves produced by the motion of black holes, and how to find these waves when they are hidden in a background of noise glitches. It’s titled “The Search for Gravitational Waves from the Coalescence of Black Hole Binary Systems in Data from the LIGO and Virgo Detectors.”

My four friends lying in the grass at noon on this hot day are kindly representing a Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detector—part of an international network of sensors designed to measure ripples in the fabric of spacetime. As one of these ripples—known as a gravitational wave and played by an illustrious bedsheet—passes by, the legs of the L-shaped detector alternately lengthen and contract. The pattern of light produced by the LIGO detector can tell us what kind of astrophysical event (i.e. the coalescence of two black holes or neutron stars, or a spinning bumpy neutron star slowly losing energy) caused these changes in length. However, non-astrophysical events (like the glitch played by my thesis advisor, Alan Weinstein) can also disturb the detector and cause light to escape. The heart of my thesis work is dealing with glitches so that they don’t hide potential astrophysical signals.

It’s actually pretty good subject matter for a dance—the black holes are acting out a cosmic ballet, and the gravitational and glitch waveforms are really just a bunch of wiggles—which is why I’ve decided to enter Dance Your Ph.D., an amazing contest that encourages former and current graduate students from around the world to explain their doctoral research using the art of dance. The competition—which comes with a $1,000 prize—is sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society and the publisher of the journal Science.

I’m not surprised to find myself dancing—it’s always been how I’ve unwound—or that I’m creating a piece of what’s essentially performance art. I am surprised that I’m doing it at Caltech, and that I’m playing not only a scientist, but also the data that I, a real-life scientist, look at. A teen model and actress who didn’t connect with any of the traditional undergraduate majors, I daydreamed and partied my way through USC until one day, in the fall of my junior year, I walked into Werner Däppen’s course, “The Process of Change in Science,” in order to fulfill a general education requirement. With distinctive enthusiasm, Däppen covered the most interesting developments in the history of science, from the Ancient Greeks’ astronomical realizations to Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance” paradox (a 1930s critique of quantum mechanics). I was hooked. Däppen taught in a story-based, almost math-less manner that engendered fascination in nearly every student in the class. But I think my excitement outshone the rest. The following semester, I switched to a physics major. I had never taken physics before. Although I’d been good at calculus, in high school I took anatomy and physiology instead because I thought I was bad at science.

When I began my physics coursework in earnest, I dropped acting—I had a lot of catching up to do, and I could not afford to miss class for auditions. I began feeling fulfilled by becoming proficient at problem-solving and understanding important physical concepts. Then I went to a conference for undergraduate women in physics, and I found out that pretty much every university provides tuition and a stipend during your Ph.D. if you’re in a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) field in the United States. This funding helped me tremendously, and it should be common knowledge instead of a huge surprise. I applied to around a dozen schools and was accepted at Caltech. I honestly didn’t think I would get in—I had a lot less research experience than most. But I emphasized my passion and unique experience in my personal essay, which is typically the least important part of a physics graduate school application. It goes to show that there’s not one standard route you must take to get to a place like Caltech.

Once I started graduate school, I was still playing catch-up; I had to repeat undergraduate classes because the ones I took at USC had covered about one-tenth of the material of the Caltech courses. I was also getting acquainted with my specific field of research—gravitational wave astronomy. It was intellectually exhilarating, but my only creative outlet during that first year was deciding on my outfit day-to-day. After I finally passed my qualifying exam on my second try, I discovered the art house at Caltech, which welcomes students and faculty to paint, draw, silkscreen, and sculpt—to get off the computer and make something with your hands.

In spring of my third year, I got an e-mail from the theater director at Caltech, Brian Brophy. He was directing a production of Pasadena Babalon (misspelled for historical reasons), which tells the story of the ever-fascinating Jack Parsons (seriously, Google him), and was in need of a female lead. Spur of the moment, I decided to show up—and nabbed the part. Since then, I’ve rediscovered my love of acting by being a part of shows through two on-campus groups, TACIT (Theater Arts at the California Institute of Technology) and EXPLiCIT (Extracurricular Players at the California Institute of Technology—the lower-case “i” is imaginary). I didn’t expect that the life and travel experiences I’d gotten from being a physics student would make me a better actor, but I’m twice as fulfilled now.

For all the opportunities to blend science and art at Caltech, the two seem to interact rarely. Caltech and the Art Center College of Design have an exchange program where a student from one school can take a class at the other free of charge. Caltech also hosts an annual “Art of Science” competition. We have dance classes, a great theater program, and a music house. But more often than not, people immersed in the lab haven’t heard about or don’t take advantage of these opportunities. Yet I know that given the time to pursue other interests, scientists would be happier and ultimately more productive. Problem-solving is rarely linear, and spending time in another world will benefit both your scientific and artistic endeavors.

If I’d been shown a video like my Dance Your Ph.D. entry when I was in junior high, I think I would’ve gotten into science a lot sooner. I see two main benefits of blending science and art—exciting yourself and exciting others. When I graduate, I hope to find a career that allows me to do both.

Science and art are not all that different: They both seek to understand reality and explore the unknown. Will the people who watch a video of me dancing around in a bunny suit learn something about black holes and gravitational waves? I hope so. At the very least, like the best art and science, it might just fill them with a sense of wonder.

Kari Alison Hodge is a Los Angeles-native artist and actress who is about to get her Ph.D. in physics from Caltech. She is also a finalist in this year’s Dance Your Ph.D. contest.

Thinking L.A. is a partnership of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.
Primary Editor: Kathryn Bowers. Secondary Editor: Sarah Rothbard.
*Photo courtesy of Kari Alison Hodge.
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