Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Typical Summer Day

As I wrote in my previous entry, I was spending a large amount of time writing a proposal, updating a progress report to NSF, and to top it off, I was notified that an NSF proposal was declined. The NSF news was particularly annoying because my proposal was a resubmission of a previously-declined proposal that I had revised according to the panel's recommendations. It seems that they always find new reasons for rejection - often contradicting the previous panel's suggestions.

But, making my rounds in the lab yesterday afternoon with my students reminded me about the great pleasures of research. From the time I arrived, my labs were buzzing with excitement (at least for me!). One student was designing an oven chamber that will allow his experiments to shed more light on the role of a polymer in reversing the arrow of time. A new student had just finished an analysis of an experiment that was able to literally watch the process of decay and self-healing. If my proposal gets funded, we will be able to extend these imaging studies to get a full spectrum at each pixel. While the results of these experiments are already hinting at some new and wonderful physics, future experiments will give us the data we need to build a deeper understanding of the process.

Another student was busily working on fixing a laser, which we will use to test our theories of the fundamental limits of light-matter interactions, while another pair of students are working on new theories that may lead to the manipulation of the quantum properties of materials by controlling the underlying nano-structures.

To me, teaching and research are strongly intertwined. Students in my lab are learning to do research under my supervision, I learn new things in the process of doing research, and my colleagues and I learn from each other. This past semester, two projects I assigned in class will lead to publications. So in addition to learning about new topics, the students ended up producing new knowledge and an extra line on their resumes. Research is just a more advanced method of learning in the process of making new discoveries.

When I got home, I reluctantly returned to my computer to make the finishing touches on all the boring parts of my proposal: the budget, price quotes, producing justification for not charging overhead on items purchased to build new equipment, etc. I finished these tasks by about 10:20pm - just in time to do some light reading before going to sleep.

I then noticed the statistical mechanics book on my desk, and could not resist the temptation to browse a bit. I got sucked into the section on non-interacting particles, which lead to discussions of entropy, gamma functions and their use in determining the volume of an N-dimensional sphere. I never cease to be amazed at the ingenuity of the human mind, and how very general results can be squeezed out of some simple ideas, a shake of logic, and a smidgen of mathematics. My 10 minute perusal turned into an hour and a half journey. When I finally made it to bed, I was so worked up that a half hour of light reading was not enough to unwind. I tossed and tumbled for a while before finally falling asleep.

This morning, I woke up a bit tired, but with a general optimism that comes from my forays into physics. I just finalized the proposal, and submitted it, taking a 20 minute break to write this post. Now, back to the rat race...

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