Jenn Does Science

Audacity of imagination

Category: talking shop

Good Enough and the Tyranny of Perfection in Science

In science, perfect is attractive. We talk about errors and deviations, but we always want to know that our equipment is working ideally. We spend our younger years in classes where we study concepts in a perfect world, and then we have the shock of going to a lab where things are decidedly messy. We may have an experiment held together with cable ties and electrical tape, but we want peak power out of it all the time.

When I was in graduate school, one of the banes of my existence was the frequency doubling cavity that gave me one of the laser colors I needed. I would take all my pump laser power, put it into this cavity, and get out a tenth of that in the color that I wanted. And that was on a good day. I probably spent at least a third of my graduate life fighting with the doubler power. There was always an elusive benchmark that if I could hit it, that would be enough power. In order to actually graduate, I had to step back and look at what I had, maybe do a couple rough calculations, and realize that I didn’t need optimal power, I just needed it to be good enough.

“Good enough” has become my rallying cry since then. Good enough means that you run your experiment as soon as it’s good enough to get a result. Because the result doesn’t really care if you had optimal power. The result cares that it was good enough to see an effect. And let’s face it, we’re probably not going to use the first data we take. We’re going to use that initial data to guide our experiments, refine it. So maybe along the way, we’ll see we need a smidge more power, an ounce more stability, and few more atoms in our trap. And maybe one day that will add up to “well, we need to overhaul the experiment.” But, in general, it’s best to save the obsessive perfectionism for those times when you’re waiting for your paper to be accepted for publication and have some down time to make big repairs. Which doesn’t actually happen that often.

Because let’s be clear, it’s really easy to get bogged down in the details. And the details are sometimes not even that interesting. Sometimes they’re even a bit depressing. Sometimes you’re turning two knobs back and forth, seemingly doing the same thing, but somehow getting a slow, steady improvement. And it’s boring and doesn’t have a lot to do with science. Or maybe you’re debugging code because you forgot to capitalize that ancient subroutine you called in the 268th line and also there might be a semicolon missing somewhere. It’s not adding to our understanding of the beauty of the universe, but it has to be done because things don’t work without it.

So why not let the things that don’t prevent forward momentum go? If you’re making steady forward progress, maybe it doesn’t matter that you’re operating on the edge of usefulness, just this once. It helps you keep sight of the big picture, of why you got into science in the first place. Because that’s important. Nothing kills dreams quicker than losing sight of them. And it’s especially important in graduate school because the tunnel gets really dark before you see the light at the end. So don’t linger in the dark places any longer than you have to, and listen to the adage: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

What Is a Physicist?

Last Friday, I stumbled upon a paper on the arXiv called “Upper-Level Physics Students’ Perception of Physicists,” which investigates the question “what is a physicist?” from the perspective of undergraduate students pursuing a physics major. That evening, I listened while D tried to explain what he’d been doing that week to my mother. Now, my mom is a pretty savvy lady when it comes to what physicists do, but I realized while listening to the conversation that even she had a hard time understanding that the project that D was describing wasn’t even really his ultimate research goal, just a short-term task that, while important, wasn’t particularly interesting to him at the time.

These two things got me thinking about what physicists are and what they do. And how that’s not really the same thing much of the time. The paper asks for students to answer the aforementioned question and then sorted the responses according to four categories on a 2×2 grid. Responses could put either a high or low emphasis on the importance of research to identifying a physicist, and they could focus on internal mastery of physics concepts versus external performance that shows this mastery. The four categories were ranked such that physicists were perceived as anything from natural philosophers akin to Aristotle or Newton (“Physicists Are Researchers Who Answer the Unanswered Questions”) to simply a student who declares a physics major (“Physicists Are People Who Are Committed to Physics”), with varying degrees in between. In my view, it seemed like many engineers would certainly fall under some of these definitions of a physicist.

But that’s a good start. It addresses the important ideas about what it means to be “A Physicist,” versus just someone with an interest in physics. I’m not here to claim I have the answer to that. But it misses something important when discussing what a physicist does: physicists don’t always do physics all the time every day. When I was an undergraduate researcher, the post-docs were fixing some plumbing leak or other and we joked about how “physics” involved an awful lot of not-physics work. And one of the post-docs turned to the other and said, “God, I wonder what it’s like to be a theorist and actually do actual physics, like, all the time?” And then we all went quiet and thought about it for a moment, and then went back to mopping.

But it’s true: experimental physicists are often not physicists. We’re plumbers or electricians or mechanics. I was the resident plumbing “expert” in an old group because I was the only one who got a certain connection to not leak. And that’s what we tend to do on a daily basis. Then, there’s the weekly tasks. They’re actually physics experiments, but often they’re at the level of an advanced undergraduate lab: measure some constant or calibrate some equipment. It’s not at all new or groundbreaking, and no one is going to rise through the ranks, but just like making sure your plumbing connections don’t leak and your electronics don’t short-circuit, they’re necessary to advancing the interesting stuff. Heck, even the theorists, the ones that sit around all day thinking about “pure” science sometimes find themselves being computer programmers more than physicists.

And if someone were to go out for a drink or dinner during one of those weeks and asked “what did you do in the lab this week?” the answer would sound depressing and not very science-y. Or it might sound just science-y enough to be confusing because why aren’t you more excited about doing SCIENCE!? That’s where my mom was with D the other night when he was talking about how boring and uninteresting the task that’s been taking him all week is. She was confused because she thought this was his “thesis research.” And it is, inasmuch as it’s necessary to get to the good stuff on which his thesis will be based.

That’s something that I think it’s important to instill in young, aspiring physicists as much as the equations and concepts: being a physicist doesn’t always mean doing physics. But even the not-physics will ultimately advance knowledge in some, albeit indirect, way.

The Culture of a Physics Group

One of the most striking things I’ve learned in the past couple of years of post-doctoral work has nothing to do with the lab. I’ve been learning about the cultural differences between different groups, as well as between different disciplines in physics. I spent seven years in graduate school, for most of which I was a research assistant in an atomic physics group. Then, I graduated and started a postdoc in a condensed matter group. And now, I’m back in atomic physics. And one of the major things I noticed was how different the scientific and investigative culture is between atomic and condensed matter. I’ve also had to adjust to specific differences particular to each group.

The first group I worked in was as a graduate student. The group was mostly graduate students with the advisor (a professor at the university) and an occasional handful of postdocs. I joined the group when the senior grad student had been there only for a few years, so we had several years together to bond as a group. We were a bit of a gang. We showed up to events at the department together, usually early so we were the first in line for food. We were generally social and outgoing. When we went to conferences, we were the ones bar-hopping and bringing beer back to someone’s room to play XBOX till the wee hours. And I don’t think it was just the students. When a new professor joined the group, I fielded a phone call from someone looking for my adviser because they were heading out to the bar. It calmed down a bit as certain key instigators left the group, but we always had an outgoing mindset in the group. We went out to lunch in a group (a herd of sorts) every Friday. We tried to institute a tradition in which when someone graduated, they had to go out to the bar after and have a drink for every year they spent in grad school.

After grad school, I slowly lost touch with a lot of the guys who had gotten out before I did. And then I joined another group. A quieter group. Culturally, we went out to lunch maybe once a year, usually to celebrate someone starting or leaving. When we went out to lunch on my first day, the other postdoc told me it was the first time he’d ever seen our boss eat out. We would occasionally go to a happy hour during a conference, but it was lower-key. And generally consisted of one drink each.

In my current position, I haven’t quite figured out the culture. Yes, we have a weekly group lunch, and I’ve already been invited to a social gathering in the first month of living there. But all the other postdocs have young children, so it seems unlikely we’ll be doing boilermakers or shotgunning beers.

Even more intriguing is the fact that atomic physicists and condensed matter physicists seem to approach physics differently. Moving from one to the other and back again showed me that. I spent the last two years in a very device-driven field. Conference talks and conversations tend to be about the current device, how you designed it, how you think you could do better. One group spent a year trying to replicate a particularly good device. Two groups square off against each other when one accuses the other of only showing data from “hero” devices — i.e., those that work the best — and ignoring the rest. While that is the general thrust of the field, to implement the best of a certain type of device, exploration of basic physics concepts seems to take a back seat to the product.

Then, a year and a half into this position, I started writing a proposal to get another postdoc in an atomic physics group. All of a sudden, I’m back to thinking about the Bloch sphere, and abstract concepts in quantum mechanics. It’s no longer just about the stuff you can do with your hands in the lab. The day-to-day involves a lot more conversations about fundamental concepts of quantum physics because that’s something atomic physicists aim to study. But apart from that, there’s a sense that you want to learn more than just what you do daily in the lab. You read papers about anything remotely related to quantum, not just papers about your specific project. It’s an attitude that I like a lot, which is why I returned.

But it was intimidating to realize that I’d have to go back to being as well-versed in the theory as the theorists. And that might give me a hangover more than all those Bud Lights at conferences.

Leaning Out in the Sciences

I found this article today and it made me think. I’m definitely not the kind of person who leans into her career. Since I started my post-doc, I’ve taken up ballet dancing, started crocheting, and performed in a community theater play. All of these activities take my time and energy away from science. There’s a perception among the physicists I’ve met that physics has to be your entire life and identity. It certainly isn’t mine.

When I was in grad school, I ran a marathon. I was a relatively high-mileage runner (~20 miles per week when I wasn’t actively training for something, up to 40 at my max during marathon training) throughout my first few years of grad school, and the marathon was certainly a time and energy commitment. But I kept my specific training goals a secret. No one asked “Oh, hey, are you training for a marathon?” while I was training, so there was no outright lying going on, but I limited my discussion of my training to my personal friends and family. I was afraid that if I let on at work that I was undertaking such training that they might become critical of my performance in the lab: “Oh, Jenn’s too tired to work hard today because she was up at the crack of dawn to run” or “Jenn didn’t get as much done this week if she would have if she’d been in the lab during that 90-minute run she took at 7am.”

And then, the day after my marathon, I was gingerly lowering myself into a chair at our weekly seminar and one of my colleagues jokingly said “What’s up with you? Did you run a marathon this weekend or something?” Probably was not expecting the answer he got.

But just because I’m not devoted to physics with my entire being, body and soul, does not mean I don’t love science. I’ve also been applying for a fellowship lately and in the process of that, I’ve had to write a research proposal. Research proposals are wonderful things because they force you to go out and read all about the cutting edge ideas in a particular field. And I rediscovered my obsessive love of certain fields in physics. I went to bed thinking about my proposal and woke up to it. I had long, deep conversations with my boyfriend about the intricacies of the experiments and hashed out how the theories work, not just to make sure I got it right in my proposal, but to satisfy a genuine curiosity.

I had overly-long, fast-paced conversations with a prospective employer where we got caught up in the science rather than sticking to the one or two logistical questions I had. I joked that it was like physics Gilmore Girls because we talked fast and cut each other off because were both getting so excited. I could feel the science getting into my blood again.

And yet, in a week, after my current play closes, I’m going to go to another round of auditions. Because it’s not all science for me. Science is just my career and I love it as such.

The Theater of Science

Anyone who knows me personally or reads my cooking blog knows that I’ve gotten into a community theater play. Yes, for the first time since college, I’m going to be on the stage. It’s a fun and exhilarating experience, although I joke that giving presentations at scientific conferences, or giving tours of the various labs in which I’ve worked has provided more than enough practice for presenting a persona in front of a group of strangers.

I firmly believe that anyone considering pursing science as a career should also consider taking a theater class. Or going out for a play. Or performing improv on the Metro. Maybe not that last one.

Anyway, I was backstage chatting with my castmates and one of them mentioned that she had met a woman who was studying kinesthesiology in one of her acting classes. This young woman was so petrified of speaking in public it was affecting her ability to give lectures in front of students. So she took the initiative to put herself through an acting class to give herself some skills and confidence in that arena. My castmate said she was obviously painfully shy, but made it through. I hope she felt some benefit outside the classroom.

So I joked when I started going to auditions again that I may have an almost 10-year gap on my acting resume, but really, I’ve been continuing to play the part of a cool, confident scientist who knows exactly what she’s talking about every time I get up to give a talk or lab tour. But it’s not entirely a joke. There’s a calm that comes in the knowledge that, no matter what’s going on in the “real world,” you can put on a persona and just speak your piece.

Because being a scientist is not just about doing your research. It’s not enough to be brilliant in the lab, not really. You need to be able to communicate your research to other people. Because the explanation will be so much richer coming from the person who fully understands the research. And you have to be able to read your audience, know when they’re trying and failing to understand you, and when they’re just tired or wishing your talk were over so they could get lunch. You have to learn not to get flustered by a disengaged audience, and how to re-engage them when you can. You have to be able to have the confidence to explain at any level to people of any background. And a lot of that is acting. Even when you’re about to burst into tears because nothing works, you have to be able to put on an engaging face and sell your research if a tour comes through. Even when you broke a major part of your experiment the week before, you have to go to that major conference and perform your conference talk.

And that’s where acting experience comes into science. It’s not about making things up. It’s about communicating your excitement for your work effectively.

Explaining Physics to Zen Buddhists

In meditation group the other day, the leader did a brief reading from a book that included an aside about how the philosophy could be exemplified by particle physics. He chose to omit that aside from his reading but later passed the book around so we could take a look. Of course, someone eventually remembered that I am a physicist, so that’s how I ended up, in half-lotus on a zafu, explaining pions to a group of Zen Buddhists.

As a physicist and a meditator and yogini, I’ve encountered my fair share of non-scientists who like to try to use physics, particularly quantum and particle physics, to advance their spiritual worldview. In yoga, any time I mentioned quantum physics, I was told to see the film What the Bleep Do We Know?, which was generally described as life-changing among my yoga friends and utterly ludicrous among my physics friends. The idea is that the principles of quantum mechanics prove that we are all interconnected and our intentions send energy out into the universe and affect things. It’s very woo.

So I was nervous, sitting here in front of a group of people with cushions and incense and talking about interactions among sub-atomic particles. But Zen seems a little more grounded in their understanding of physics. They were very smug about the discovery of sub-atomic particles because their cosmology states that the world can be divided into ever-smeller pieces. And that’s not untrue. It’s also true that, at the sub-atomic level, our bodies have little difference from any other matter in the world. And when we die, we just go back to that bank of raw material that the universe uses to build things. Except we don’t even have to die, really. No matter what state we are in, we are just particles.

But where the pions come in are when you talk about observation and interactions. The idea in the Zen reading was that we don’t ever observe a thing; we observe how it interacts with the world. Personally, I like to think of color, which isn’t an inherent property as much as a way of seeing the light an object doesn’t absorb. When you put green cellophane over a plant, it dies because the green light is the light it reflects, not the light it absorbs for photosynthesis. But the reading talked about the interactions between the constituent particles of protons, how they gain mass from these interactions. And it’s true. If you take two free up quarks and a free down quark, their masses don’t add up to the mass of a proton. However, quarks can interact and form two-quark mediating particles, and these could give the proton its mass. This is a rough explanation because I’m not a particle physicist, but I was glad that I happened to remember this from a college class I took.

When it comes down to it, I sit with a very educated, science-minded, intelligent group of people. I don’t know if the Zen conversations seem more grounded because there are a lot of scientists, or if Zen attracts scientists because it seems to have a more grounded cosmology. But talking about physics to the “layperson” is not always about classroom demonstrations and family gatherings.

But How Can It Be Science If They’re Wrong?

This comes up every so often, most recently in regards to global warming. I’ve discussed the fallibility of scientists in the past, but now I want to talk about scientists being wrong about their own scientific findings. Specifically, what do you do when science gets disproved? And what does that really mean anyway?

The most recent example I can think of is the faster-than-light neutrinos, and the popular articles declaring “Einstein was wrong!” because he said that the speed of light was the cosmic speed limit. And then, it was discovered that these faster-than-light neutrinos weren’t that fast after all. It was an error. In layman’s terms, “error” means “mistake.” “Error” means “scientists were wrong.” But the reality is more nuanced than that.

Science is a practice of inquiry, not of being right. The best experiments are those that can be reproduced by another group (Although that’s not a hard and fast rule, as there are plenty of large, complicated collaborations that aren’t getting reproduced anytime soon. The LHC comes to mind). And, when you’re on the cutting edge of science, sometimes you end up producing results that end up being disproven later. Anyone who followed the supersolid helium debates know about this. Science is a process by which we approach the truth, not a way to prove truth once and for all and get to just forget about it once you’re done.

And, yes, there are biases and opinions that pepper the scientific debate. Take advanced particle physics theories, for example. The Standard Model is one way to describe how sub-atomic particles combine to make the world we live in and observe everyday. But, even though it’s been very useful to a lot of people, there are those that believe it doesn’t describe everything. So what’s the better model? What’s the real science?

Well, the answer is, we don’t really know. But there are a lot of very smart people who have some ideas. Some beliefs. And, yes, they are beliefs because most of these theories have basically zero evidence to show that they are valid, just evidence that some other theory isn’t valid. So there is an element of belief, even among the most analytical of scientific minds. Heck, even Einstein tried to backpedal on the theory of quantum mechanics. The EPR paradox, which was originally conceived to critique quantum mechanics, gave rise to the theory of quantum entanglement, which has now been observed.

So now we’re back to “Einstein was wrong!” But it’s not about right and wrong. It’s about the journey.

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.

Allow Me To Mansplain…

In the wake of Rep. Akin’s egregious comments about rape and pregnancy, this blog post has started making the rounds.  My first reaction was, “Yeah, that’s terrible that that sort of thing happens to intelligent, capable women; I’m so glad I’ve never had to deal with something like that.”

Then I realized I have.  And I don’t think it’s entirely about being female.

See, I’m a grad student (for a couple weeks more, anyway), and I’m currently the only female grad student in my group.  I’m also the senior grad student in my group, so I have a fair amount of experience in the field.  When it comes to routine, annoying problems, I’ve seen a lot of it.  And I’ve thought about a lot of it.

Yet, for some reason, people in my group don’t always hear what I say.  On several occasions, I’ve made a suggestion to someone having a problem that was either discounted or flat-out ignored. No response. Like the person did not even hear that I had spoken.  And then, maybe later in the meeting, or later in the week, or even a couple weeks later, the same suggestion would be tossed out by one of the (male) principal investigators.  It bears mentioning here that the only female PI at the group meetings is also one of the youngest PIs in our institute.

When the PI brings up this suggestion, it’s considered and almost always agreed to be the best suggestion for the situation, and we’ll all reconvene when it’s been tested because it’s likely that this will fix the problem.  Wait… what?

I’m also not the only person who’s noticed this.  A couple of my friends in the group pointed it out to me after a particularly annoying group meeting where I actually repeated my suggestion a couple of times, only to have no one appear to hear me. I was glad to know someone had, even if they hadn’t made that known at the time. And even more irritating is the fact that at least one of the guys who brought up that “no one listens to Jenn” actually did just that after pointing out that no one listens to my good suggestions.

Okay, enough back story. Am I here to moan about how nobody listens to the poor little women?

Not at all. I will bet that, while this seems to happen to me a disproportionate amount, part of it is because I am a (mere) grad student and the PIs are (wise) PIs.  The thing about scientific discovery is that it is generally a collaboration, especially in experimental physics.  There is just so much going on that you often physically require at least one other person to run all the equipment.  At the very least, you always need to be training a new person for when the senior grad student graduates (or the post-doc finishes his or her appointment).  And often the one who knows the most about the specific experiment is a lowly grad student.

As I finish my graduate career and embark upon my first post doc, I’m trying to keep this in mind. I’ve had too many encounters with post docs who believe they know more than the senior grad student just because of that degree, when in fact, the grad student knows way more about the specific experiment than they do. Heck, at first, pretty much all the grad students know more about the specific experiment than a brand-new post doc. And it’s dangerous. At best, you end up with a post doc who waits for explanation from the PI for everything rather than accepting the word of a grad student; at worst, you have a post doc who breaks things because he or she disregards instructions from a grad student.

So it’s not just about women versus men. It’s about all situations in which one person goes in thinking he or she has more knowledge in an area and therefore doesn’t need to listen all that well to the lower orders. And it’s good that Solnit has put a voice to the phenomenon as it pertains to men correcting women incorrectly.  It’s just “the boring old gender wars.” It’s not you. But the same is true for people experiencing the same frustration due to their age. While it’s a good idea not to get a swelled head about your own importance (especially in grad school), sometimes you’ve been on an experiment for five [expletive] years and, yeah, you know more about the specific electronics used because you built them all (or oversaw them being built).

I guess my parting thought is that this kind of attitude affects the retention of grad students in the sciences.  And, yeah, it’s going to affect the retention of women in the sciences because they get the potential double-whammy of being ignored for gender as well as age. But regardless of either, be confident in your experience. Don’t be afraid to speak up loudly. And know that’s not always you; scientists are full of blind spots and biases just like everyone else.

“So What’s All This Higgs Boson Stuff About?”

I’m sorry, I’m really not the best person to ask.

It’s not that I don’t understand the physics better than the average layperson.  No, that would be a lie.  But sometimes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  I understand what I’ve been told, and what I’ve read.  I probably have a little better understanding of the basic physics behind a lot of things.  But, really, particle physics is not my area of expertise, and I’d worry about misinforming you.

I can tell you that the term “god particle” is misleading.  In fact, it was originally a joke, something that got changed by the publishers to sound more meaningful that it was probably intended.  I can tell you about naming things in physics.  Seriously, it seems like sometimes, 75% of laboratory work is swearing at the problem until it decides to behave.  Or at least until the swearing makes you feel better.  The other 25% often involves a mop.  But maybe that’s just my experience.

Here’s the thing about experimental physics:  We don’t all sit in ivory towers and think about abstract physics concepts all day.  Maybe some theoretical physicists do that.  But the people doing the experiments don’t do all that much physics on any given day.  We fix leaks (vacuum, water, oil, etc.) and electronics.  We fight with vendors and wait expectantly for equipment to be delivered.  We might occasionally get to build or fix a really cool piece of lab equipment, like a laser.  But taking data?  Doing “physics?”  That’s astrological alignment territory.  And if even if we are running things and taking data, a lot of it might be a calibration or something that won’t lead to a major breakthrough, even on the scale of our particular specialty (something that will interest perhaps five people outside our lab, and one of those is a particularly doting parent).

So if you have a special someone in your life, someone who is a dear friend or relative, who happens to have more advanced physics knowledge than the average person, go ahead and ask “Hey, do you know anything about the Higgs boson?”  But don’t expect an in-depth lesson on the building blocks of particle physics and the standard model.  Heck, I have colleagues who think finding the Higgs is kind of boring, because it proves something, and it’s more fun to disprove things.  Perhaps expect a lot of discussion about statistics and sigmas.

But if you are a barista, or a telemarketer, or, well, any casually-encountered person, and the person with whom you are casually encountering mentions a career in physics, you should probably keep your questions about the latest popular science news to yourself.