Blending Paths: Catherine Asaro, The Ballerina with a Ph.D. in Physics

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It’s not terribly often you think of art and science as going hand in hand. (At least, I know they’ve certainly never felt that way to me!) As artists, the creative process is often messy and non linear, with inspiration popping up who knows where and when. Maybe we find it after we’ve accidentally spilled paint everywhere except the canvas, after amassing piles of crumpled paper all over the floor or after we’ve heard and danced to the same piece of music so many times we’ve lost count. For a right brained person like myself, and I’m sure for many of you all as well, my process for creating doesn’t have a set formula like you find in science. Even in more nontraditional creative outlets such as playing poker, a World Poker Tour champion would be able to use his or her right brained, intuitive skills to create an intricate winning strategy. This creative problem solving could never exist at an online site such as because it’s being played by a logical computer program. This is the realm science exists in; neat, analytical, proven solutions passed down by yesterday’s scientists to their counterparts today.

Catherine Asaro is one of those rare individuals who counter the idea arts and science don’t mix; she has successfully created a life and body of work which is a beautiful mixture of both. Though these days she is best known as a science fiction writer for her Nebula Award winning novel Quantam Rose, Catherine is also a visiting professor of physics at the University of Maryland. But even before her scientific endeavors, first and foremost, she was a classically trained ballet and jazz dancer.

Catherine started dancing at the age of five at a studio near her home in El Cerrito, CA which taught the Royal Academy of Ballet’s syllabus. She successfully studied the syllabus through the first professional level and then enrolled at UCLA’s undergraduate dance program. After graduating, she enrolled in the  graduate Physics program at Harvard University and then went on to get a Ph.D in Chemical Physics from Harvard. While pursuing these prestigious degrees, she also impressively joined Harvard’s Mainly Jazz Dance Company as artistic director and the Harvard University Ballet as a principal dancer. Though Catherine has ended her dancing career now, she always acknowledges how dancing enriched her academic and writing careers. “[Ballet] isn’t a pursuit often associated with science, but for me the two blended well. When I decided to become a theoretical chemical physicist, the switch felt natural (well, to me; my professors were rather bemused),” Catherine says to a reporter in the 1998-2000 edition of science fiction publication Crescent Blues.

Believe it or not, neuroscientists actually have a term for Catherine’s unlikely dance/science pairing: conceptual blending, or the mental process of making connections between dissimilar ideas or actions. I’m in awe of someone like Catherine who can create a life which blends such unlikely interests in a seamless way. Michael Michalko, in the essay What Helen Keller Taught Us about Creative Thinking in The Creative Post, would probably argue I’m in awe of her because we are all conditioned to think in a “mechanistic way”, where we tend to stick to the rules we have been taught and to chalk up anything violating those rules as impossible. But that’s not where my awe lies. (I’m not a strict rules and violations type of gal.) I admire anyone’s ability to create their own path in life which fulfills all of their creative interests and also pays the bills.

In her interview with Big Think, Catherine tries to explain her mindset of blending dance and physics: “If you can think in terms of imagining dancers or sports and what they’re doing on the playing field, you have very good spatial perception. And that translates very easily into physics. Imagine the theoretical physics and how wave functions and wave forms move, and that sort of thing,”

Dancers and scientists like Catherine aren’t the only ones practicing the art of conceptual blending. Conceptual blending is also common among gamblers, particularly poker players. This may sound odd at first but it makes sense: to be a successful player, you have to be very good with math and numbers. But you also have to be adept at reading people and exercising your intuition. After all, how else are you going to know when someone’s bluffing? Poker players also must always be aware of their emotions and keeping them in check. (Gotta keep that poker face, right?) As poker player Haseeb Qureshi writes in his blog, “you have to bolster yourself when you downswing, or when you make a string of losses, so as to prevent tilting or your emotions affecting your game.”

All theory and psychology aside, I think Catherine Asaro’s success shows us that hard work pays off no matter how disparate your interests may be. Whether it’s ballet, physics, science fiction writing or poker, practice will always help you work towards perfect.

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Showing 4 comments
  • Annie Coggan

    I will be conceptually blending all day today-great post!

  • chelsea

    I have thought a lot about science and ballet. When I was a teenager one of the principle dancers at the company was an astrophysicist (while she was getting her Phd she was dancing all the leads at the company). She discovered something involving the moon and planets and has been on CNN and the like. Then another dancer that I grew up with is now an anthropologist and currently teaches at Harvard. In my current classes there are two lawyers and an environmental scientist. There is definitely something that can happen when you combine the two. Now, I am very interested in conceptual blending! Thank you for letting us know about it.

  • candice

    Conceptual blending seems so important to the writing process, which probably helps explain her science fiction award as well. I can see this idea becoming very important to the editors here at Dd! I am interested to know how you met or found out about this Renaissance woman?

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