The Voodoo Queens of Physics

It was a dark and stormy night. Actually, no, it was just after noon on a Monday and we were having lunch with a bunch of PIs from a nearby lab. We’d been plagued with issues in our experiment, none of which we could really explain. Some of them came and went, seemingly on a whim. One of the PIs came up to us. I should have known what was coming, given his impish grin, but we lit with genuine hope when he started with “I know what you need to do to fix your experiment…”

“What you need to do is get a chicken, slit its throat, and spill the blood over the optical table.”

Oh. Ha ha.

But this goes to illustrate one of the constants of experimental physics in my life: There is a lot of voodoo. There is always the person who can whisper the piece of sensitive equipment, the person with the magic touch with the optical alignment. An experiment might have steps or a recipe to follow, but there is always a factor of the unknown, the personal. This is where the voodoo comes into physics.

I remember the moment that I became, in my own mind, the senior grad student. As a young student, there was always that moment when I had just spent an hour or two trying to optimize something, trying to align optics, only to have the senior grad student come in and tweak everything up better in just a couple minutes. I remember the first time I did that, swooped in to fix things, relying on years of cultivation of a gentle touch with the optics. Now I was the one with the delicate fingers, who could adjust the alignment just so. I was the one who could catch the laser in between mode-hops, to settle in just the right place.

I was the voodoo queen of the lab.

And now, in a new lab, in a new environment, I have to find not the recipes and procedures, but rather the magic. I have to find the places where science becomes an art. This is something a lot of people don’t give science credit for: the art in science. The great scientists aren’t the ones who are the smartest, but rather the ones who are creative. The people who think “Well, I have this equipment, let’s try using it like this instead of how we’ve always used it.” The people who build an electronic circuit by hand-wrapping wire around a resistor instead of relying on the parts in the drawer. We may not actually sacrifice chickens, but we don’t always behave in the rational way the non-scientist might assume we do.