Featured Alumni Profile: Brandon Brown
Can you tell us a bit about your connection to OSU, your current position and your research on the electric sense of sharks?
I studied at OSU from 1992 to 1997, earning a PhD in Condensed Matter Physics under the supervision of Prof. Janet Tate. Shortly after I started a faculty gig here at the U of San Francisco, I switched my research focus to the electric sense of sharks and their relatives – it’s a true sixth sense they can use for hunting and navigation. Local angle: I was only alerted to that interest via a friend of a friend, over beer, in Corvallis. A graduate student in marine sciences said, “oh, you study superconductivity? You should really look at a shark’s head if you want to see something amazing.” Truer words.
Why did you take creative writing classes while working on your PhD?
Writing had always been a sincere interest of mine, and I thought it would be great to keep scratching that part of my brain, if possible. One reason I came to OSU was that the Physics Dept. said I could take courses in other programs as long as I got my primary work done. Other universities were much less flexible about this. This was back in the last century, before OSU had a true MFA program, but that probably made it easier for a random physicist to join the graduate workshops.
More broadly, some might see creative writing as far removed from physics. How does your coursework in writing serve you in your work and life today?
Well, it’s all about telling stories, so I think it serves me well in many areas, from broadening my ideas of working with students, to helping to fundraise a new building here (I wrote a lot of the publicity material and helped with the messaging). More than anything else, in my physics life, the creative writing training really helped me write grants – not as works of fiction, but as stories. When I write a grant proposal, I’m constantly thinking about the reader and why she or he would turn the page to keep reading.
You’ve written a biography of noted physicist Max Planck—Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War. What drew you to that project? What did the writing process teach you?
I’ve been drawn to poor old Herr Planck since I was nineteen and I learned that he spent an awkward decade not understanding his own discovery (the energy quantum). Once I started learning more about his tragic, moving life and his connections to other notable figures, I was hooked. The writing process for Planck taught me a number of things about myself, like my optimal hours (mornings!). But of broader interest, I learned what I’d heard from so many of my wonderful writing teachers at OSU (people like Tracy Daugherty, Marjorie Sandor, and the late Ehud Havazelet): don’t be afraid to start over, from the first sentence. I wrote a complete chronological Planck book and then threw it aside when my wife, an avid reader, said it was kind of dull. Version two emerged more naturally, with significant dramatic tension.
Were there any discoveries you made as a student here in your writing classes that have stayed with you? (This could be something specific like an article or book you return to time and again or something more abstract like a particular way of engaging with a text that has been meaningful to you etc.)
I think the enormous impact for me was the realization that real writing, or the most impactful writing, cannot avoid authenticity. When I showed up in 1992, I was hiding behind lots of clever devices and written artifice that I thought was impressive, but I was not engaging with things that were meaningful and therefore threatening. With many curated examples from those workshops and steady encouragement, I got closer to being a more honest writer, and really then more of an adult human. Sounds overblown, right? But I see it that way. I’ve come to see something very important in those instructors: their classes were all about the students and not about themselves. They never encouraged the understandable cultish, guru/yogi structure that you may find in certain MFA programs elsewhere. I feel incredibly lucky.