The messy part of the story


Photo courtesy of Muppet Wiki,

Shakespeare wrote in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “The course of true love never did run smooth,” which is usually true.  I have observed that you can substitute nearly any word in that quote and have it still ring as ironically true as with love.  In my case, the course of true research never did run smooth.  I have started writing my thesis and realizing the mountain of work I have to complete between now and May.  As I have been outlining the work I have done and the story I want to write, I have had an opportunity to look back at the tortuous journey that has brought me to staring at my computer screen while wondering how to shape all the work I have done in the past five years into a comprehensible document.  Those of you who have done academic research may know why I started giggling while looking at my outline.

A compelling scientific paper, like a compelling novel, tells a coherent story with a beginning (motivation), development (observations and work), and conclusion (summary and future work).  But what gets left out of the paper, sometimes to the detriment of the readers, is the rather interesting path that led to the work in that paper.  For instance, I started out with one project only to have someone else publish the experiment I wanted to do (scientists call it “being scooped”).  I switched to another project only to find that I hated it.  The last project was born from a curiosity to know what a material would do if I zapped it with a laser.  Once there, I applied the Scientific Method that we all learn in school and had my hypotheses violated, refined, and re-tested to learn something new.

Reading any article published in an academic journal – which is how scientists disseminate the information they’ve learned – you wouldn’t realize how many of those papers are not phenomena the scientists thought they would discover ahead of time.  Isaac Asimov, a biochemistry professor and prolific writer, said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka’ but ‘That’s funny…’”  Scientists and researchers tend to write papers as concisely as possible and in a way to make themselves sounds as smart as possible.  But so much of discovery and science is messy, and what many scientists forget when writing these papers is that what makes you a researcher is not how you stumble upon something interesting, but how you react to something “funny” when you find it.  What makes a person knowledgeable is having enough previous experience to form a plausible hypothesis, and what makes a person a researcher is having the skills to test it.

Some researchers freely admit that mess.  Under the Twitter handle #overlyhonestmethods, scientists and researchers have explained given honest, funny explanations of why they did certain things a certain way.  Reading these tweets, young researchers may find solace knowing that great researchers are, in fact, human.

So why am I writing about my thesis and the course of my research when so much is happening in the outside world to make a millennial slightly crazy?  While I was writing my outline, I started giggling because I realized how deliberate my research project would sound.  After a certain point, it was deliberate in that I was trying to ascertain why I observed what I did.  But when I started, I did not have much of an idea about what I would see, and there is little room in a traditional thesis to express where curiosity and intuition will take something.  And, now, history books are, in a way, sometimes accurate novels, offering one way of thinking about events that transpired, just as a scientific paper is one way to thinking about phenomena that were observed.  It will not be clear what will happen to this country without some rigorous tests as to the forces at play, and the citizens will have to play the scientists, deciding whether actions, like some sort of newly discovered phenomena, could be useful in future or detrimental.  So here I will sit, one small force vector in this great experiment, hoping that what we learn from these events will benefit our future.


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