Archive for April 15th, 2009

Here is another rant on how things progress in science. The truth is that it is really very slow on average. Slower than a slug trying to cross a football field to see what is there. More often than not one ends up in blind alleys and doing wrong calculations. After checking for errors five or six times, one finally gets some results and sometimes they can not be used or they do not lead to what one was hoping for. This is when you realize that you didn’t have the basics right and have to start over.

I really have no statistics on it, but only about one in ten ideas that I produce are sufficiently good to pursue seriously and only one in ten of those seems to actually lead to something new and interesting in the end.

While I wait for those, I spend the time doing slow standard calculations just because I know that they can be done. And there might even be some surprise at the end of the homework. I call it homework for a reason. There is no mystery, it’s just a matter of doing the calculation without mistakes, and once one gets to the final answer one has contributed epsilon to the scientific knowledge. This epsilon is usually really small. One has just completed the homework and the only interesting fact is that one got there first. If one gets a little lucky, the epsilon is bigger than infinitesimal and one gets a nice surprise. Once in a blue moon these are very nice, but they do not happen frequently. This requires luck, which ends up playing a huge role in scientific careers.

Even after one completes such calculations, there is the time for writeup and seeing if the calculation has enough meat in it to be worth publishing. Otherwise one has to collect enough of these until one gets enough epsilons to pass some minimal quality cut.

There are also some good ideas that are not pursued because there is no manpower to do it, and one knows from the start that the calculations are interminably long. Sometimes there is just not enough time, and these ideas end up in a dusty closet on the recesses of our minds waiting to be rescued. This can happen many years down the line when there is another idea that seems to be related to our personal archive, and some other times it is because new data makes it a lot more relevant than when it was conceived. This is part of the reason that experience counts for so much in science. Just having seen enough and archived enough half started calculations gives one an edge when new ideas become available.

As you can probably tell from my blogging activity, I’ve been rather busy with distractions and have been trying hard to carve time to be able to pursue some of these calculations.

There is nothing to report here, other than progress as usual is punctuated more often by my collaborators than by my own personal input. This seems to be standard when one is directing graduate students. I have been told this quite a number of times. The usual quote is

Now you know what the job of senior researcher is all about. Welcome to the club.

I’m starting to appreciate more and more the lack of time that my senior advisers had in the past and at least I can still empathize with my junior collaborators. My only advice is to tell them to be patient and that it will get done (without delaying it to infinite time). I also really treasure the weeks when I don’t have to teach. The funny thing is that I also need a vacation and that does not seem to fit anywhere in the schedule either.

Now I’ll be back to my pen and paper.


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