Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Posted by Arjendu on July 28, 2009

The first Phys. Rev. I read as a graduate student, I carried around with me for weeks. I read it carefully, underlined everything that I thought I understood (or that I didn’t understand; yes, I know how absurd doing both sounds), looked up all the references and tried to read them, and worried about what it all meant. I still didn’t get the paper fully, couldn’t reproduce all the calculations. At some point during that period of my life, I remember walking into the journals room of the Physics Mathematics Astronomy Library at UT and being struck with a  feeling that I was doomed. If it took me weeks to read one paper, how could I ever hope to keep up with a discipline where thousands of pages in my field were being published every week?

Since then, I’ve gotten a lot more practiced at keeping up with the literature, at skimming the abstracts, at extracting the core meaning of a paper quickly. Or so I tell myself. And at writing papers, too. I understand now that a paper is a contribution to the discussion, and not each one has to have the earth-shaking impact of one of Einstein’s miracle year papers, and am able to put them together without that nervousness that inflicted me early in the game, and I see still affecting my younger colleagues when confronted with the task. I tend to write drafts of papers pretty quickly, and have been reasonably successful at getting a steady stream of publications.

But maybe I’ve become too practiced. Case in point: I started, about a week ago, to put together some ideas about steady-state entropy production in non-equilibrium systems (if you care) — one of my collaborators and I have some results that I believe can contribute to the literature. And here I am, impatient with myself that the paper isn’t written yet, while simultaneously feeling that everything I’m thinking of saying is already well-known (well, no, it’s only well-known and obvious to me and my collaborators because I’ve been staring at this for a while. It is actually new, as my background literature search for the last 3 days has shown me).

So this blog entry — as some before — is a reminder to self: It takes time to write; it takes time to create ideas. It is also very possible to become too used to a result, and stop seeing it as the fresh and interesting idea it would be to others. And so sometimes I need to step outside myself to be able to write up my own results.

And so it goes.


One Response to “Impatience”

  1. That last paragraph is as true a summary of the writing process – at least in academic life (in staff and faculty offices alike) – as I’ve ever seen.

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