Moments of desperation (and, skeletons in the closet) while doing research

Recently, I learnt about the book Handbook of materials modelling, edited by Sidney Yip. Published a couple of years ago, in two volumes and running into nearly 3000 pages (not to mention — costing around Rs. 50,000 approx.), it seems like a veritable gold mine if your interests are in modelling and materials science. One of the “perspective” articles in the book by Bulatov (provocatively titled Dangers of “Common Knowledge” in materials simulations) caught my attention; and, the frustration described in the very first paragraph is real and I too have experienced it many times.

For someone entering the field of materials simulations, it may be difficult to navigate through the maze of various ideas and concepts existing in the literature and to make one’s own judgment about their validity and certainty. Monographs and chapter books make it easier for a beginner to prepare for reading the literature describing the state of the art. Yet, even while reading a textbook, a novice may get the discomforting feeling of “not digging” a certain statement. If and when this happens, the first urge is usually to re- read the passage and think harder and, if that fails, to re-view the preceding discussion trying to pay more specific attention to the facts and logic behind the elusive idea. Then, depending on one’s patience, it may become necessary to read other texts or talk to more experienced people. But what if all of this fails to clarify the point in question? What if the misunderstanding persists through the years and continues to nag even after most of the other, initially difficult, ideas happily find their proper place in one’s mind. It is quite natural then to begin to doubt oneself: why does no one else have this difficulty? Is it only I who is stupid? Eventually, the feeling of desperation subsides, often replaced by a conditional acceptance: “I don’t dig it but I can live with it”.

Bulatov goes on to discuss some technical (the non-usability of periodic boundary conditions for 3D dislocation dynamics simulations) and some basic (the dislocations always glide on planes that have the largest interplanar spacing) misconceptions which were blindly accepted by the community as common knowledge. Though the details presented in the article might only be of use to the practitioners in the community of dislocation dynamics simulations, his take home lesson is valid for almost all of us:

… my only and rather evident conclusion is that it is a good practice to remain agnostic about the ideas and concepts prevalent in any field of research, materials modeling included. Others may have their own “skeletons in the closet” waiting to get out in the open. This brief article was my way of doing just this.

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