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Experimental physics as preparation for parenthood

Posted by Melissa on May 7, 2011

Before I became a parent, friends and strangers alike would tell me, “You have no idea how much your life will change with the arrival of a baby.” I’ve found my transition to parenthood has been less disruptive than predicted. I credit that, in part, to being an experimental physicist. Here are five ways in which my experience as an experimental physicist helped prepare me to be a new parent.

1. Nothing ever goes as planned. In lab, equipment will break just weeks before an important conference deadline. The computer will crash in the midst of collecting a critical data set. You will be driven to the edge of insanity trying to find an intermittent contact in the electronics.  Flexibility and patience are essential for experimentalists and parents alike.

2. When beginning a new research project, there’s no blueprint that will guarantee success. Experimental work is by its nature experimental. You bring your own experience and knowledge, but there will be times when you feel uncertain about the next steps. It’s a good idea to ask for input and advice from those with more experience, but ultimately, you must choose what approach you think is best for your project. Parenting, likewise, involves experimenting with child-rearing approaches, seeking advice, and learning how to adapt that advice.

3. Your time is not your own. If you think calibrating the set-up will take an hour, before you know it, it’s midnight and you are still trying to finish something that you expected to finish hours ago. If the liquid helium needs to be refilled at 7 am on a Saturday morning, you need to be in lab at 7 am on Saturday regardless of how late you were up the night before. Both experimentalists and parents find that their schedules are determined by necessity, not by choice.

4. It’s a messy, hands-on job. The vast majority of your days are not spent sitting around thinking deep thoughts about physics. Rather you spend your days tightening the bolts on the UHV chamber, changing the mechanical pump oil, and fabricating samples. And then there are those occasions when the filter on the water cooling system plugs just as you are leaving lab to meet friends. You try to quickly change the filter, but a slip of the hands leaves you covered in goopy sediment and smelling like stale pond water.  It’s good preparation for dealing with diaper explosions or trying to decide how large of a spit-up stain you can have on your shirt and still venture out in public.

5. Despite the challenges and frustrations, both the small successes and the long term rewards make the endeavor worthwhile.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the scientist moms out there!


4 Responses to “Experimental physics as preparation for parenthood”

  1. Mary said

    As an experimental physicist and new mom, I love this. Except I think you sound like a better/more patient experimentalist than I am. Years of experience have not taught me to accept those frustrations gracefullly.

  2. Christopher Tassava said

    It occurs to me that another resemblance is that if all goes well, both experimentation and parenting will have results far larger than one’s own lab/life – a breakthrough that will benefit other scientists (or, heck, the whole world), or a good kid who will grow up to do good things.

    Also, both experimentation and childrearing require great quantities of funding and expensive supplies.

  3. Melissa said

    Mary, I don’t think I’m all that patient of an experimentalist…one difference that I didn’t mention is that experimental work involves much more swearing than parenting.

    Christopher, good point on both counts!

  4. maceblen said

    i love your essay, melissa. a neat study in comparison. might we venture even further and think of being an experimental physicist as one pathway for an entire life? the unknown and the unexpected envelop us — or so it seems to me. love, mammy

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