Thursday, November 21, 2013

If they learn nothing else this semester...

To my students,

I know that it is extremely hard to keep showing up to problems that you don't understand.  (It might not be obvious to you, but I struggle plenty with my own coursework.  It comes with the territory.)  We choose our paths in life (and they choose us), at least in part, because we are good at what we do.  For example, as much as I would joke about joining the circus as an undergraduate (which was often), realistically, I would be a terrible fit for the circus.  My body doesn't move like that, and I'm not really into animals.  But that's beside the point.

When you start learning science, the path is fairly well traveled.  Many people have gone before you, and there is a clear indication of where you ought to go next.  Study {science} in college.  Learn as much as you can.  Do research.

For a while, people will know the answers to the questions you ask, but as you keep going, the path will branch out and bottleneck.  There will be fewer and fewer people who have gone before you, until you find yourself at the edge of science.

I have a great deal of admiration for Robert Frost, but this letter is not about the "road not taken."  Research is about the road that doesn't exist yet.  When we reach the end of the path we are on, we must keep building the road and connect it to other roads.  A road isn't as profitable if it dead ends; the major thoroughfares are what everyone wants to be responsible for creating.  Sometimes this is easy, and sometimes, it isn't. 

Even the best scientists won't know exactly what will happen next, 100% of the time (heck, even quantum mechanics will only give you probabilities!).  The soil that you will build on may be clay, or shale, or full of sand.  The problem might seem overwhelmingly simple at the outset, but complications may prolong completion.  The alternative may come to pass: it could begin as a huge mess that simplifies drastically as you proceed.  Most of what you do will be, I hope, somewhere in the middle.  Not understanding how to get to the endpoint right away doesn't make you a bad scientist.  Choosing not to understand, however, means that you will never get any further than you already are.  

My job is to help you get comfortable with building those roads, to practice troubleshooting.  To develop your scientific intuition.  To embrace Murphy's Law as the fifth Gospel, and then to move beyond it.

This class is just as important as other, more "relevant," classes that you'll take.  Here is why: this class is helping you to be more comfortable making connections between things you know and things you don't know.  That is the general idea behind all that you will do in research.  You learn about the world, and you use what you already know to draw conclusions about what you don't yet understand.  And then you see what happens.  

You have a person with only marginally better "eyesight" leading you through all of this.  It is non-trivial to show up to your own education and say, "this is going to be hard, but I am going to learn something from this, and that knowledge motivates me to keep on keeping on."  That attitude is precisely what binds me, covalently, to my education.  I might get excited by stray photons, but, as we recently learned in lecture, there are a number of ways to relax to the ground state.  And, as one of my professors in undergrad told us (about tunneling and bound states): you always get out eventually.

With respect and best wishes,

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