Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Posted by Arjendu on September 23, 2009

My favorite kind of conversation with a respected colleague when talking about my ongoing work goes like this: It starts with my telling them a result that I’m excited about, that I have preliminary results for, and am trying to extend. They say “Umm, that’s surprising”. If all is going well, they sit back in their chair and brace for some random nonsense that they are going to have to shoot down, because what I have just told them goes against their strongest intuitions (in case you haven’t noticed, I’m trying to use ‘they’ for the un-gendered first-person pronoun).  I then proceed to talk for a few minutes, and at the end of it, the colleague looks at me and says, “Ok, that makes sense, I buy it, cool result.”

In fact, that’s a damn good principle for getting a paper published in the first place, that there is some result that is surprising when first encountered, but when you go into the physics carefully, you are able to explain or understand it. If not surprising in the first place, why bother (as the referees will happily tell you)?  And if you can’t explain it, the referees will torture you equally happily.

When I sat down with Tomaž a couple of evenings ago to discuss my results on non-monotonicity in the quantum-classical transition, I got exactly that pair of reactions (well, he’s Slovenian, and doesn’t say ‘I buy it’ or ‘cool’ but you get the point). And we discussed matters a little further and the feedback continued to be interesting. So yes, a few conversations like this was exactly what I wanted from this trip.

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