I apologise for things being a bit quiet around here recently – I can only blame my shonky time planning in failing to fit new posts in. I’ve actually started penning 3 or 4 over the last couple of months, then something has got in the way and by the time I got back to the post it seemed a little old and irrelevant.
The major reason it’s been so quiet is that I’ve been solidly ensconced down in the modelling lab since January making headway on the project work which I aim to have finished by the end of May. That I’m writing a post now is largely because after a smooth start, some unexpected observations, a detour, and most recently a proper pause while I stopped to try and figure out a problem, I’ve been reflecting on the nature of experimental work, and how we go about navigating these little issues.
I’ve been assured by colleagues that it’s not just me that hits these speedbumps – they are a natural part of experimental work. So I write this post for new researchers who perhaps have not found their first hurdle yet, or perhaps those of you who are just interested in how experimental science jogs along in between those times we’re excited about a new project and publishing the resulting papers. And for those of you who know this all too well, maybe it will at least be a comfort to know that everyone else has the same problems.
Unless of course it is just me who has these moments, in which case I guess you can just all point and laugh 🙂
Any experimental research project begins with either a hypothesis, or at least a series of behaviours that you want to investigate. While conceptually this idea might be simple (“see how fluidised grainflows deposit”) all sorts of interesting phenomena and experimental obstacles can get in your way. For example, after I analysed the first months worth of experiments I realised that the material was behaving strangely when it was in a particlar configuration. It’s an interesting physical phenomenon which had been seen before by a colleague in the lab, but as far as we’re aware not published on. So, at this point, do you try to find a work around for the issue, or do you divert and investigate this new problem? The answer will depend on your funding and your timescales. But consider there’s also the possibility you might not find a workaround. In the words of Tolkien:
“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”
Sometimes these things can open new avenues, sometimes you’re presented with something which makes your work more difficult to interpret or less valid for the case you had hoped to compare it to. Sometimes you just hit a dead-end and you realise your line of enquiry is going nowhere. And sometimes you hit upon something and you can’t necessarily tell which of those many things it is.
So it was that I was stood in the lab this morning resting my head on the handle of a broom, staring into the middle distance trying to work out a chewy problem with regard to how to get the information I wanted under the conditions imposed by the equipment, and considering a number of little hurdles which have been identified in the last 4 months.
The original research project had been to see how flow and deposition occurred in granular flows which have a high gas flux passing through them, and when their material supply lasts longer than the timescale it takes for the front of the flow to come to a halt. These fluidised sustained currents are how we believe the largest ignimbrite-forming pyroclastic flows behave. Particularly vexing for me is the attempt to get a long deposit profile, without getting drawn into a messy problem involving the rate we inject gas at a particular point (which seems to have a weird control on the flow, but we can’t understand why, so we’ve put it to one side to deal with in a future dedicated project).
At the end of the day dealing with these problems is part of the fun of experimental work – finding where the obstacles are and then navigating them is what the research is all about. But sometimes you end up leaning on a broomstick staring into the middle distance on a stinker of a problem you can’t wrap your head around.
When I find myself doing this (and it happens quite a bit more than I think people realise) I have a very simple way of moving forward*. Sit down, grab the lab notebook, draw a line under the last entry and start writing down what I’m trying to do, what the problem is, and write down every idea that comes to me about working around it. I don’t know why, but for some reason writing it down in this way helps incredibly. Next time you have your chin on a broom handle and are trying to stare-out a wall, give it a go**.
Within a 20 minutes I had settled on an approach to work around the problem that will get the results I need in a meaningful way. Much success!
And so it was that 1 run later I discovered a whole new ‘feature’ of the experiments we had no idea was happening. Back to the broom it is.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Feynman that I love and think sums up the whole thing rather nicely.
“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”
*One successful method at least. The fall back I rely on is to go and find somewhere to have a few beers in the sun and hope the problem goes away. Not yet successful, but a pleasant way to spend a day.
** May work for other postures.