Nicole Falcone bridges humanities and science, winning awards for each
The science of physics and the art of poetry might seem a universe apart.
To Nicole Falcone, however, they are both ways of understanding the world.
Falcone, a 2022 graduate of Rutgers University, excelled in both fields during an eclectic undergraduate journey in which she double majored in physics and English, won top honors in each, and enjoyed a deep dive into the Rutgers campus experience.
I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space
“I got to explore the scientific world, going to labs on Busch campus and meeting people who are totally invested in STEM and research,” said Falcone, who graduated from the School of Arts and Sciences Honors Program. “Then I also had the humanities side, hanging out in front of Murray Hall having picnics and discussing books through wistful conversations and taking classes with these amazingly creative people.”
But even Falcone was taken aback this spring to learn she had won two Henry Rutgers Scholar Awards—one for a research paper on particle physics and the other for a collection of her original poems.
The Henry Rutgers Scholar Award recognizes seniors who have completed outstanding independent research projects leading to a thesis. It’s one of the highest academic honors a Rutgers undergraduate can receive, with the entries submitted by faculty.
“First, I saw the physics email, and I was really surprised,” said Falcone. “Then I saw the email for my poetry and I was like, ‘No way!’”
Amitabh Lath, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy who oversaw Falcone’s physics research, said her double achievement is stunning and serves as a model for other students seeking to embrace both science and the humanities or explore their commonalities.
“Students like Nicole are the bridge,” Lath said. “Maybe she can encourage more students to excel in both fields.”
Falcone grew up in Monmouth County and graduated from Communications High School. Although she arrived at Rutgers with a facility for math and science and a love of literature, it was through exploring different options in SAS that she decided on her double major.
After thinking about various science courses, she decided on physics because of what she sees as its philosophical bent.
“There is something intrinsic to physics that asks a lot of questions about existence and the way the world is structured,” she said.
Her award-winning physics paper titled Application of Gaussian Process Regression to the Low Mass Dimuon Spectrum focused on the use of machine learning, a type of artificial intelligence, to analyze particle physics data from the Compact Muon Solenoid at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland.
Falcone had no idea she would pursue poetry until she took a course with Mark Doty, a Distinguished Professor of English and award-winning poet.
“I used to think poetry was just fragmented thoughts,” Falcone said. “But Professor Doty introduced us to so many different and dynamic poems that expanded my assumptions of what poetry is about.”
Doty also encouraged Falcone to write her own poems. She ended up taking his advanced poetry workshop her sophomore year where she and seven other students read, critiqued, and supported each other’s work.
“It was a beautiful experience,” she said. “Everyone had such a distinct voice — there were no two people who were writing about the same things. We were all so different.”
Falcone won the other Henry Rutgers Scholar Award for a collection of 17 poems, titled The Striptease of Humanity, which includes an introductory essay about using poetic forms to capture the passage of time.
Doty said that Falcone’s poems are the work of an original thinker with a voice all her own.
“She takes a situation — a convivial evening gathering of friends — and suddenly she's recording not just this moment, but this moment seen in retrospect, much later in the lives of these same people,” Doty said. “Her work is rich, compelling, and she sounds like no one else.”
When she wasn’t busy studying, Falcone discovered that her double major opened many possibilities on campus.
She worked at the Physics Lecture Hall setting up physics demonstrations for classes and public shows. She also served as the head copy editor on the 153rd editorial board of The Daily Targum as well as being a contributing writer. On top of this, she went on to work as a gallery attendant at the Zimmerli Art Museum for her remaining final semester.
For Falcone, who is considering a career in journalism and publishing, embracing both science and humanities has always felt natural.
And she quotes Hamlet to show why.
“I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space,” Hamlet says in the play, a quote that to Falcone illustrates how language works its best to sum up the human condition. At the same time, it reminds her of debates in physics over the nature of the universe.
“That line makes me think of all we can extract from literature to capture a portrait of the world,” Falcone said. “And these ways of understanding the world can also be found through attempted expression by mathematical knowledge and postulates of physics.”