We physicists get such a bad rap in the movies. I’m not talking about the endless renditions of us as nerds, incapable of holding a conversation with anyone unless it’s on topic, tongue tied in the presence of the opposite sex, no dress sense whatsoever. Well, perhaps they might have a point with number three, if my opposite number wasn’t looking out for me, I probably wouldn’t be giving it due attention.

What gets to me is the portrayal of process, it’s the way Hollywood always present it as a organized and efficient progression; physicist sits down and, oblivious to his or her surroundings, pulls an all nighter but remains stumped. Janitor walks in, makes some throwaway comment that provides the missing piece to the puzzle. Cue the inspiring music. In my experience, the only thing a janitor ever said to me was “do you want the trash emptied?”; assistance was generally received from fellow physicists who had the patience to sit down and work through the data to try and understand where i went wrong.

When I was a student, my advisor was an internationally renowned physicist widely recognized for his research achievements. But even he had his off days. Sometimes we would sit in his office and try and derive a set of equations to describe something. Page after page would be filled with complicated looking formulae. With a complete set of equations we would look at what was irrelevant, which terms could be discounted, which parts held the key.

“these terms are almost constant” he would say “so we can cancel them out from either side”
“but that term is irrelevant, because these terms dominant at high E values” I offered, trying to give the appearance I followed what he was talking about
“right, we means that we can do the same with this, this and this”
“and those two, which means”
“that we are left with….”

These sorts of real life setbacks are never portrayed in the movies, along with the absolute bewilderment often experienced by real life researchers, the sort of confusion you might experience trying to figure out how to program one of those knock off hard disk recorders to program a tv program.

I had one of those moments last night. I’ve been writing a program to analyze experimental data. If it works it will be quite novel, allowing me to look at results from a new perspective. It’s complicated though, and involves trying to parse out data and create descriptions of relationship that exist between different points – it’s why I’ve not got around to blogging lately. Of course, I might have got it done sooner if I hadn’t got distracted by watching five seasons worth of Dexter or trying to read a stack of novels that I had picked up on a recent trip to the US.

I finally got the most difficult part of it running last night but, unlike the Hollywood version of events, there was no running outside in the pouring rain shouting to the heavens with arms spread wide – for one thing I live on the fifth floor and it was bloody cold out there. I think I stood up, stretched and stubbed my toe against a leg of the coffee table.

The other problem was that under certain conditions it still wouldn’t run properly and the program would bomb. I spent two days trying to figure out what was going on. Part of the problem was I’d written some of the code two months back and it was so complicated that, despite the comments, I’d forgotten how part of it worked. There was no one I could turn to either, I work in a hospital that has a low physicist count; when I try to discuss my work with fellow researchers I am met with uniformly blank expressions which I suspect double up to disguise their utter lack of interest.

I just figured out what the problem was. There was no eureka moment, the janitor didn’t help me, I didn’t go bursting into another lab to share my euphoria. First of all it was 5am and secondly I don’t think I would have been able to fully convey my sense of excitement by speaking Mandarin – “Happy Times! The broken program is repaired”

The problem? The data file was corrupted. I was asleep on the couch and woke up with the realization that I hadn’t checked this. One manual edit and five minutes later my program was running.

As my old advisor would have said – “fuck…”


7 Responses to “physicists”

  1. Jan Says:

    That wasn’t you solving it. It was your spiritual guide. You should take him out to dinner some time to say ‘thanks.’

    ,snip> Have you ever gotten a solution to a problem or heard of someone that has, from a dream? In these instances you are getting knowledge from your higher self and/or from your spiritual guides. When you are going to sleep you can suggest problems that you would like to solve. You can ask a question and often times it can be answered in your dreams.

  2. Pseu Says:

    Excellent. The power of the mind, while asleep! A well known problem solving method? Yes, well recognised!
    lovely piece

  3. cyanide bunny Says:

    according to reggie
    “When we are asleep, we are more alive and knowledgeable than in our waking state. Our consciousness does not go away it simply changes states

    so all that snoring is just a front eh?

    i think just clearing the mind can do the job as well, getting away from the problem by going for a bike ride, or watching 5 seasons of dexter

  4. Jaimeatdnmyt Says:

    I had a Dr friend in LA, who was also a writer. He got a gig being the fact checker for a medical drama, like House, only it wasn’t. After the first script, he was horrified. He told them, Doctors would never behave like this; it’s entirely unprofessional! And the medicine is completely inaccurate! So they fired him.

    • cyanide bunny Says:

      when i lived in the US some guy at our hospital was askedto check a movie along the same lines., it wasn’t outbreak, but something similar. He said they insisted on having brightly coloured bottles of liquid on the shelves in the background. Used coolaid i think.

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