Posts Tagged ‘experimental science’

On doing science: a lab story

August 29, 2008

Chad at Uncertain Principles has a series of three posts; first one explains the physics behind the paper; the second explains the circumstances under which the experiments were carried out; the third one about the paper writing and review process; all three are worth reading; to give a flavour, here are a couple of extracts from the second and third posts that bring out the experience of doing science in a nice fashion:

As I said, this was probably my favorite of the experiments that I did at NIST, because it was mine from start to finish. It was my off-hand idea to do the experiment in the first place, I made the decisions about what to measure, and I did almost all of the analysis myself.

This was also one of the first times I felt like a Real Physicist, because the analysis I was doing wasn’t trivial. I needed to figure out what the various bits of the signal meant before I could extract information from them, and while there weren’t any real “eureka!” moments, there were a lot of small epiphanies where things just clicked into place, and I realized what something meant, and how to use it to measure something interesting.

As I said, the whole thing was a blast, and is one of my fondest memories of grad school.

Standard practice at PRL– thanks to Dan Kleppner, as I found out at DAMOP– is to send submitted articles out to two referees, and ask for feedback within two weeks. I checked the status of the article somewhat obsessively, of course, and saw that Referee A returned their report very quickly, while Referee B didn’t do anything until the two-week limit. A discreet day or so after the two-week deadline, I sent an email to the editors asking what was up, and the next day saw a status update saying that a reminder had been sent. A day or so after that, I saw the dreaded “Non-report communication received from Referee B.”

This generally means that a paper has been returned by the referee, saying that they were too busy to review it. That sends it back to the editors to choose another referee, and the two-week window resets.

So I was rather surprised to receive a notice from the editors the next day, saying that the article had been accepted on the strength of Referee A’s report only.

The report was included, but I’ve since lost the exact text. It was almost absurdly good, though– the referee, whoever it was, absolutely gushed about the paper, saying that it was “sure to be a seminal work” in the field.

My favorite line of the whole thing was a bit that went something like “The only thing I take issue with is the authors’ claim that many interesting issues remain to be resolved. It seems to me that this paper has completely covered everything.”

I have no idea who refereed it– the reports are anonymous, and they didn’t leave any obvious terminological clues (there’s some variance in the names of relevant quantities among research groups). As a couple of people observed at the time, I’d really like to be able to request that person as a referee for all my subsequent work.

Sadly, this didn’t really turn out to be a frequently-cited paper– the Abstract Data Service puts it at 16 citations, which sounds about right. The field as a whole really shifted away from cold collisions around that time, and there hasn’t been much done that would follow up on it. Still, having someone speak that highly of your work is just amazing. It was a great boost to my confidence heading into thesis writing and my trip to Japan in late ’98.

This was the part of my graduate career where I really got on a roll. Between July of 1997 to May of 1999, I was an author on two PRL’s and a Phys. Rev. A article, gave invited talks at a conference in Austria and the APS Centennial Meeting, spent three months in Japan, and completed my thesis. I also started dating Kate during that span (she was in DC working on Capitol Hill).

Really, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Take a look!

Some links on education and learning

April 7, 2008

[1] Raj at Plus Ultra quotes Jonah Lehrer at The Frontal Cortex on the purpose of big lecture classes:

It’s easy to be misled into thinking that the real purpose of taking organic chemistry or “The 19th century English Novel” is to learn about benzene rings or the writing habits of Charles Dickens. But that’s an illusion. What nobody bothers to tell you is that you will forget everything, that all those chemical equations will be purged from your hippocampus shortly after the semester is over.

Rather, the real purpose of all those big lecture classes is to teach you how to learn. You are being given an education in education, forced to develop the kind of thinking habits that will allow you to synthesize, memorize and analyze information later on, in real life. The content of the lecture notes is virtually irrelevant. What’s important is the fact that you know how to take notes in the first place.

[2] Sean at Cosmic Variance on the need for nationalisation of public education at elementary and secondary levels:

Is there any theory behind the idea that students should getter significantly better or worse educations based on the county in which they are born? This isn’t an issue of private vs. public; it’s a public service, paid for by taxes, just like Medicare or national defense. But we finance public education by combination of state and local revenues, rather than through the national government.

Faced with such a patently misguided system, the most common calls for reform involve the imposition of some sort of national standards, such as those featured in the No Child Left Behind Act that has lately been foisted on our schools. In principle, national standards are a great idea; in a sensible system, however, they be the last of a series of necessary reforms. It’s like a team that hires a new football coach, who addresses the team on the first day of practice by saying “Here’s the system: we’re going to win all of our games!” Without an actual playbook, appropriate equipment, and some strategy, exhortations to do better aren’t going to achieve any tangible results.

It’s obvious what is needed: a basic national curriculum that is shared by all schools, with a set of requirements that leave room for creativity and innovation by individual districts within the overall framework. (There is no reason why American math classes should be two grade levels behind European math classes.) Plus, crucially, an overhaul of the financing system so that resources are distributed fairly. Those are just the minimal reforms that every sensible person should be able to agree on; after those are implemented, we can return to our regularly scheduled debates about school choice and bilingual education. Apparently the problem is that conservatives hate “national” and liberals hate “standards,” and both are afraid of the teachers’ unions. So we should all be able to compromise and do the right thing! As Miller says, “We started down this road on schooling a long time ago. Time now to finish the journey.”

Though the post obviously makes reference only to the US system, I guess some of the things that Sean has to say are relevant in the Indian context too, where, the different syllabi are used in different schools, and some of them seem to be missing some important components: see this post and comments.

[3] PhilipJ at Biocurious quotes George Wald, a Nobel Laureate on experimental science:

I have often had cause to feel that my hands are cleverer than my head. That is a crude way of characterizing the dialectics of experimentation. When it is going well, it is like a quiet conversation with Nature. One asks a question and gets an answer; then one asks the next question, and gets the next answer. An experiment is a device to make Nature speak intelligibly. After that one has only to listen.