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Married Courant Professors Solve the ‘Two-Body’ Problem

Antoine Cerfon and Miranda Holmes-Cerfon with their child

Antoine Cerfon and Miranda Holmes-Cerfon with their child

 

First comes love, then comes marriage. Then comes baby...and twin DOE early career awards?

Antoine Cerfon and Miranda Holmes met back in 2003, when they were both undergraduates who’d traveled halfway around the world—he from France, she from Canada—to study abroad in Singapore. More than a decade later, they’re married and living together in New York City with their 15-month-old son.

The twist on the age-old boy-meets-girl story? Both spouses are assistant professors in NYU’s Courant Institute, and each just received Early Career Research awards from the Department of Energy—two among just 35 young scientists from across the nation selected by the DOE’s Office of Science to receive at least $150,000 per year to cover summer salary and research expenses.

Though they share a household, an employer, and a passion for figures, Antoine and Miranda (now Holmes-Cerfon) have distinct interests: He studies the math and physics of nuclear fusion (the attempt to “reproduce the Sun as an energy source on Earth”, he explains) while she works on mathematical models to predict how tiny particles assemble into structures (like “really small bricks building a castle,” she says). Still, the differences don’t always prevent work from coming up at the dinner table.

NYU Stories caught up with this resident power (or is it energy?) couple to chat about friendly competition, quarreling over equations, and whether their son might one day enter the family business.

—Eileen Reynolds


Did you both find out about your DOE Early Career Research awards at the same time?
Antoine Cerfon: No—we’re not quite sure why, but Miranda knew about it about four weeks before I did. There’s only a finite number of times that you can apply for the funding, and this was already my second time. So when Miranda got it and I didn’t get any calls, I thought the next time would be my last chance. It was strange for a moment—a low for me.

Miranda Holmes-Cerfon: I guess I was happy when I got it, but I was also sad because I thought Antoine didn’t.

A: And then a month later I got the call, and it was a big high for both of us.

How did you celebrate?
A: I forget whether I went to get my delicious banana cream pie from Magnolia’s! A long time ago, when I sent in the application, I said I would. It’s such a long process. You have to tell yourself you’ll treat yourself if you hear good news.

Do you often find yourself up for the same honors and opportunities?
A: Not usually. I’m much more of a physicist, and Miranda’s much more of an applied mathematician, so that’s just enough of a buffer to not be competitive. We only got the same award because DOE covers such a wide base.

Do you ever bounce ideas off each other?
M: We don’t really talk about the particulars of our own research together, but sometimes Antoine will help me if I’m putting together a talk—I’ll do a run-through for him and he’ll help to critique it. It can be helpful to have someone who knows what the general standards are but doesn’t necessarily care about the content as much.

A: Sometimes I ask Miranda about math things that I don’t know, and other times, vice versa: I’ll point her to nice textbooks or to a journal article.

M: Usually we end up having an argument about math, though, so we don’t talk about it too much. Because he doesn’t believe me most of the time!

Was it difficult to land two faculty positions at the same school?
M: It’s very hard because departments are very specialized and researchers are very specialized, so it’s hard to find the right match. We were just extremely lucky, I think.

A: There’s a very famous problem in physics, when you try to compute, say, the motion of three planets. With two planets, you can do it exactly by hand. But with three planets, you cannot do it by hand. So the “three-body problem” is a famous expression. And so for academia, this problem of trying to get two persons to live in the same place is called the two-body problem. For us, the incredible breadth of the Courant Institute was the key. There are so many different aspects of science studied here, so that improved our chances.

Is there any overlap among your students or classes?
M: Last year we taught the same class—Calculus III—but different sections of it, so we had different students. It was helpful to be able to compare teaching notes and see what worked and what didn’t.

A: And the final exam for that class is common to all the sections, so we get to see whose students had the higher average score on it. That tells us which of the two of us is a better teacher!

And who was it?
M: We don’t want to say. [laughs] It’s a mystery.

Do you tend to bring work home with you, or exchange office gossip?
A: We’re at a math institute, so the level of gossip is incredibly low.

M: Yes, if there were more to gossip about, that would be nice! But really, the thing about being a scientist is that you sort of work all the time. You always have problems going through your head, and it’s hard to turn that off. Some people are probably better at it than others.

A: And also what’s nice is that we have a son who is 15 months old, and he doesn’t care about our jobs. So spending time with him allows us to have a good balance.

M: Yes, that’s true. He forces us to stop working at a certain point.

A: Without him, we could potentially almost always be thinking about the Courant Institute. That would be dangerous.

Would you like your son to follow in your footsteps one day?
A: All I’m hoping for him is that he’ll find a job that he likes. And if he can do that being a poet, fantastic! But we’ll have to be careful that he doesn’t hate math just because we keep talking about it.

At fifteen months, he’s probably not even counting yet, right?
M: No, we’re working on words, and on not putting food on his face—stuff like that.

With two number whizzes in one family, who pays the bills and balances the checkbook?
A: Clearly, the mathematician in the house! I don’t think you need to be a mathematician, but it turns out that Miranda likes to do the budgeting.

M: But Antoine does the taxes, because that’s boring.

A: So we’re split. And, as always, the husband thinks he does 50% of the work, but in practice it’s more like 30%...

Has exposure to each other’s work ever led to unexpected insights?
M: Well, I study something called the Fokker-Planck equation, and Antoine studies something called the Fokker-Planck equation, so naturally I thought we were studying the same thing. But it turns out that there are two equations that are slightly different but have the same name! We had a lot of arguments about this until we realized we were actually doing different things. So I learned new math from him.

If you could travel back in time to when you were first getting to know each other, and tell your former selves you’d one day be married and working at Courant together, would it come as a surprise?
A: Back in 2003, when we met, we did not dare to hope that we'd one day have the privilege to both teach and do research in such a world-class place. However, I remember that, without ever saying it explicitly, we decided to make that our goal early on—and somehow managed to stick to it until it happened.

M: I’d probably be shocked that I have a normal, professional life—at one point I wanted to be a mountain guide! And I hope Antoine doesn’t mind if I say that we took a math class (mathematical logic) together in Singapore and he got a B+ (partly because he spent every weekend traveling around Indonesia and Malaysia!) so I never thought he’d be a mathematician, as talented as he is at so many things.

For more on the couple’s research, read an article featuring their work on the Department of Energy’s At the Universities page. 

 

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