On Doing Physics

Posted by barb on Jul 22, 2005 in Thesis/Grad Life |

For the past two years I have focussed the entire of my thesis work on writing scripts and running data through a data pipeline, while losing sight of the underlying physics. All along I’ve kept telling myself that I really need to read more journal articles and that I really need to explore the physics of the sources that I’m studying, but the allure of getting my data through the pipeline quickly has taken over. I’ve used the excuse that I only work half-time on my thesis to justify my tunnel vision.

Over the past month, Andrew and I have been attempting to carve out one night per week where we go to Starbucks and I read journal articles. If I sit at home, it’s too easy to get distracted by other things — the cats, tweaking my data pipeline, watching tv or a movie, reading a book, cleaning, anything. So, at Starbucks, I have only my articles and a frappuccino (or iced tea, if I’m trying to be healthy). While I read, Andrew works on writing that he’s been neglecting. It seems to be a good system.

However, I need to do more than just read the articles.

I need to interact with them. Wrestle with their implications. Figure out if I believe the results. Struggle with the question of if the methods presented are sound. Decide if some of the results or methods could be applied to my work. I need to do some physics.

Last Tuesday, I read an article talking about something very related to my thesis work. I picked out one small part of the discussion and decided to work through the arguements, tracking down the equations, plowing through the numbers, and following the logic to the authors’ conclusions. I haven’t done anything like that for more than 2 years.

I’ll confess that I picked out something that looked relatively easy, so I could ease myself back into the physics waters. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to figure out what the authors were doing, or that I didn’t have the right tools anymore. I worried even more that I wouldn’t care about getting to the answer.

It has maybe taken me longer than it needed to, but I’ve been able to work through several of the arguements. In fact, it’s been hard to do much else with my time, because I want to find the answer. The problem has been on my mind for days now, and I think about it even when I’m not working on it. Last night, while Andrew and I were trying to get to sleep, I thought I had finally worked through the authors’ logic on one part, so I made Andrew listen to my hunch and work through it with me.

I’m feeling re-energized. My thesis work is not pure drugery anymore. I feel engaged. Here’s to keeping up that feeling!

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Jul 22, 2005 at 1:40 pm

I know how concentrating on the code can put you in danger of leaving the physics by the wayside. Engaging the papers on your own is one good way to get back into it, but, for me, talking about papers with others is the best way to go about it. Although Journal Club at the department never really worked out, getting together with a few others of a comparable seniority to talk about one particular subject or paper is very helpful to me.
You might be interested in our department’s Theory Lunch Discussion. During the semester we get together once a week to talk about one paper or subject or whatever that one person has picked out. It’s non-confrontational and involves a lot of thinking out loud and bouncing ideas off of each other. The paper doesn’t have to be theoretical, but the discussion should be.

Jul 23, 2005 at 1:16 pm

Kayhan — yeah, I really should get off my @ss and get together with some people to discuss the journal articles. It’s just that UMD is so far from Goddard 🙂 Maybe next school year I’ll try to get out there more often…of course then I have to park in the pay lot.


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