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Collaborate? Sure

Posted by Arjendu on June 27, 2008

As I am sure I’ve mentioned before, I do a lot of my physics collaboratively and a lot of this is remote collaborations. It’s critical to my being able to do research — otherwise I would feel very isolated here in Northfield. For those who don’t know, Carleton College has a very small number of people on the faculty, and only undergraduate students, which means that it is the antithesis of the big productive research factories where most faculty members got their Ph.D.

My colleagues not in the sciences find it fascinating that we have collaborative work at all. It’s easy to explain why experimentalists, particularly ‘big-science’ experimentalists, need collaborations. Certainly all of the very few single-author papers you still see in the literature are theoretical (I can’t remember the last time I saw a single-author experimental paper, unless it was a review of some sort). But why do theorists work in teams? And relevant to being at a small college (and hence making this an Anacapist post): How does one create and sustain collaborations (particularly remote ones), and what does one mean about the nature of my work?

So I’ve been musing about collaborations, and this is the first post that results

There’s an interesting tension in general between solo, focused, theoretical work (and boy can this be intense and focused, see Dave Bacon’s commentary on the comparison between theoretical scientists and Tiger Woods for example) and the wide-ranging, free-wheeling, and extended discussions that characterize a good Gordon conference or a KITP workshop (see the latest KITP newsletter for a discussion about how the KITP mode of doing science is beneficial).  Clearly some people prefer one mode and some the other.

In my case, as I find my time more sliced up by teaching, administrivia, life (especially post-parenthood), it has become harder impossible to sustain the kind of day-and-night-long sustained bits of effort that I used to periodically pull off in graduate school and as a post-doc. Not that this was always some remarkable push through new intellectual territory and not that all these pushes were useful — there were, and there remain, as many trips down intellectual blind alleys as needed to find the clear path. But still, I could do it: Survive on coffee and whatever snacks I had at hand until I was ready to get up from my desk, even if it was 12 hours after I sat down. But now responsibilities make sure that even if I do have that kind of time available, I don’t have it in one sustained chunk.

As I find myself bouncing from project to project, I wonder if I have changed irrevocably and can never do solo work again. My research is starting to look like my life, in short: Many things vying for my attention, and one has to parallel-process (or compartmentalize or whatever). To give you an idea, currently in rotation: (1) With Bala and Drew, on persistent patterns, (2) With Arik on quantum state diffusion and anomalous chaos, (3) With Nathan, continuing work on scaling in the quantum-classical transition for a decoherent chaotic system that I started with Arnaldo.

I also have two rising seniors working with me this summer, Bob and Chris, who are looking at sub-projects that relate to the project with Arik. I have on the back-burner my work with Anatole on ratchets, and hell, probably multiple postponed conversations with friends I need to pick up and keep moving.

The good part is, collaborative work can be innovative and definitely more than the sum of its parts (this is perhaps a good time to refer you back to a recent note on how humans problem-solve). The bad part is, I am not sure it is always good to have to keep re-orienting myself every time I dive back into a problem.

I could argue that given that I have only short chunks of time, it doesn’t matter what I work on in that time — I am always ‘restarting’ something when I return to it, and it might as well be something new. It certainly allows me to never feel completely stuck on a problem. When I get very frustrated with one of the projects, I dive into one of the others. But there is clearly some sort of cut-off point for having too many projects going, and I think I’ve hit that limit.

Sometime soon, musings on (1) What exactly is it that I *do* in one of these collaborative projects? And (2) How do different personalities affect the way a project works? And so on ….


One Response to “Collaborate? Sure”

  1. Chad Orzel said

    I can’t remember the last time I saw a single-author experimental paper, unless it was a review of some sort

    I can– it was in 2001, in PRL.

    There may be a more recent example, but I can’t think of one.

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