May 312016
 
breakdown of schrodingers equation

Scientists, especially those with crippling social anxiety, live for the ability to be right and have others say “wow, you are so clever”. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen often. Luckily, there’s an simple hack if you need a quick fix of superiority – all you have to do is explain the Schrödinger cat paradox to someone. To fully experience the warm, slimy, gush of smugness, be sure to tell people that it’s really easy for you to understand it and you are happy to explain it more than once if their brain hurts.

This week, scientists at Yale university (the fancy university with a 4.3/5 star rating on Facebook) have ruined this much loved hack by making everything far too complex for anyone to understand. They have proposed an extension to the famous cat in a box theory where the cat is now alive, and not alive, in two boxes at once. The clever virgins at Yale have combined the original idea of Schrödinger’s cat with another central concept of quantum physics: entanglement. Entanglement allows an observation happening near you, to change the state of a distant object instantaneously. In other words, as soon as you settle for a partner that ticks, like, 90 % of the boxes, your long-term crush, wherever they may be, instantaneously find themselves attracted to you.

All this new proposal means is that it’s now much harder to pretend you understand what is going on with the world, and you’d be better off sitting in your favorite chair letting the dog lick chocolate off your nipples.

Clever virgins this way:

  1. C. Wang, Y. Y. Gao, P. Reinhold, R. W. Heeres, N. Ofek, K. Chou, C. Axline, M. Reagor, J. Blumoff, K. M. Sliwa, L. Frunzio, S. M. Girvin, L. Jiang, M. Mirrahimi, M. H. Devoret, R. J. Schoelkopf. A Schrodinger cat living in two boxes. Science, 2016; 352 (6289): 1087 DOI:10.1126/science.aaf2941
May 232016
 

Sometimes, I like to introduce acute panic and anxiety in my life by browsing the LinkedIn profiles of people who have jobs that I wish I had, or people who I consider much more ‘successful’ than me. As I run the cursor across the smiling faces of professional smug bastards (I often pretend to pick their noses) one word keeps popping up – passionate.

Now, I normally associate that word with the moments between wanting to kiss someone and offering to fall asleep in the wet patch. Clearly, there is something wrong with me if I’m unwilling to fall asleep in the wet patch of my research.  Is it a fundamental flaw in my plan that I am not passionate about what I do? Should I be the smug smiling bastard, looking soullessly down the lens of a camera? I would argue that being passionate is not a prerequisite for success and, in some cases, it can hinder the career progression of early career researchers (ECRs).

Being passionate about the research you are doing is every scientists dream. The fact that a person is genuinely passionate about their research normally implies that they are very lucky, or have developed some sort of sweaty palm Stockholm syndrome towards their research captor. Ultimately, whatever the reason, I am in no doubt that these people will end up living with cats and their many turds.

I get the feeling that it’s much easier, and more common, for someone to say they are passionate about their research than actually be passionate about it. That one word acts as a Teflon shield easily explaining why someone would be willing to enter a competitive job market, with fewer and fewer jobs, and seek funding which is becoming harder and harder to come by. It may be difficult to admit to Auntie Jane, during the annual Christmas pilgrimage to her strange smelling house, that you never had a plan and you don’t know how you got to where you are now. So yeah, Auntie Jane, I’m passionate about thin film coatings, that’s why I cry myself to sleep – they’re tears of passionate joy.

Being forcefully passionate about a vanishingly small part of the world will limit the opportunities that ECRs allow themselves to be open to. In the same way that telling your mum you like blue limits the type of presents you get. You will find yourself receiving the same blue-themed presents, every year, for 10 years’ worth of birthdays and Christmases when, actually, you stopped liking blue 5 years ago – you just can’t bring yourself to tell her the truth.

In today’s increasingly unstable research and academic job market, the ability to still find enjoyment in whatever you turn your hand to is much more valuable than pretending that finding the chemical composition of toe nail clippings rocks your world. You can still do your job, be good at it, and not want to fuck its brains out.

 

May 162016
 
wrong way sign

Everyone knows the feeling of being wrong. It’s a combination of needing to go for a wee mixed with the feeling you get when you see someone you fancy hug an attractive person who always has food in their teeth. When science is wrong it corrects itself. Simple. It rewrites textbooks, retracts papers and adjusts its lectures to indoctrinate the next wave of scientists with the new truth. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about scientists. Scientists try their very best to be objective but are still humans who, like everyone else, feel the social pressure to shave their private parts to impress people.

In science, being wrong about something is not a weakness at all. However, being a dick about being wrong is a huge weakness. Being on the other side of the fence and catching someone out for being wrong is a great feeling, it feels just as good as catching your mum eating chocolate even though she and your dad are on a diet. A simple protocol to follow if you catch someone being wrong is as follows:

  1. Suppress your excitement and limit physical tells to a punchable smirk.
  2. Tell the person they are wrong and politely explain to them why.
    1. If the person becomes confrontational, the quick rush of adrenaline will serve to limit your ability to put a sentence together and save you from infuriating them further (evolution working wonders).
  3. After explaining yourself (with increased hand gestures), remove yourself from the situation and tell everyone for the next week about how right you were – perhaps blog about it.

When you are the unknowing Pinocchio of science, the first instinct after realising you are wrong is to proclaim that you are still right. I’ve done it. It’s easy to do because if you are found to be wrong by a very small number of people it doesn’t really matter. Academics are busy enough to not really care about you and your shitty opinions that you parade as fact. The most embarrassing time is when you are wrong and you have either been wrong for a very long time or you are wrong about something someone else is excited about. I once spent a week analysing what I thought was a nanocomposite fibre of interwoven carbon nanotubes and silver nanowires – a super strong conductive fibre for flexible electronics and fabrics. Whilst perusing the fibres through a microscope a forensic scientist looked over my shoulder and, while I was explaining about the awesome new fibres I had spent all week making, he said with a punchable smirk on his face “they look a lot like polyester fibres from a T-shirt”. After the warm rush of embarrassment left my face and I had proclaimed that I was still in fact right, I slowly came to realise that the fibres which, I had spent the last week telling everyone about, were indeed the result of a poor cleaning procedure and a student in the lab who had a preference for shitty polyester T-shirts.

I spent the next week batting away questions asking how my wires were turning out. I felt deflated and embarrassed. However, upon arriving home I needed a little pick me up and said to my partner “say those three little words to me” and knowing how to cheer me up she said “Andy, you are right”.