I am coding at half midnight. I have been at a computer screen all day working on something which has very interesting results but to get them takes painstakingly repetitive and relatively dull work. Whether it is plugging cables (I never did this but physicists do) or debugging programs, hitting a wall and being confused for days, or simply waiting for something to happen, there are times in this line of work when you can feel completely drained. The only thing that keeps you going is the destination – the goals, the mission, the results.
I want people to know this part, not as a deterrent but simply to see all sides. The goals of our research are ambitious, exciting, thrilling even. However, the work itself can be frustrating, with long periods of no progress. In a collaboration as big as this, you can feel rather insignificant. The scale of the projects not only awe and inspire you but can daunt and overwhelm you. Being part of incredibly long term experiments can leave you wondering where you are headed, and how far you are going to get.
During our holiday in Slovakia, Phil and I spent a few days in
the High Tatras, hiking and enjoying the views. It felt quite freeing to be somewhere far from home, without our laptops and the internet, with only flowing streams, tall trees, other walkers and possibly bears (!) for company. It gave me a chance to think alot about my life and my goals, how far I have come and where I am headed, my PhD and beyond. Sometimes you can be so caught up in things you forget to take a step back and see where you are going. I am sure there’s a wood-for-the-trees line in there somewhere.
We planned a walk one day that took us up to one of the higher chatas by lunchtime, and we could either turn back to where we were staying from there or try to go up a few hundred metres more and take a different trail back down. As it happened, we arrived a little early and were feeling proud of ourselves, and a bit ambitious (extra courage and warmth given to us by the tasty rum teas the Teryho Chata restaurant has for you when you get there). We wanted to reach a proper peak that day, and earn our goulash when we got home. So we set off for the next big climb.
On our way, we could see what looked like mountaineers in the distance, scaling a rock face. Something like an hour later, the trail brought us right under them, and we realised the “climb” was harder than we expected. The walkers were clinging to metal chains and making very slow progress. After a few slippery rocks I realised I was not going to be able to carry on – I had to put most of my weight on my flimsy arms and I didn’t trust them to not drop me to the bottom of the valley. The moment felt very similar to being 30 seconds into a rollercoaster ride called “heaven and hell” when I was around 8 or 9 – realising I am not as brave as I thought (although I didn’t scream “I want to get off!!” this time, despite that being my thought process!)
After a little cry, a hug from Phil and another cheeky tea at the Chata, I realised that the moment I have to turn back is one I am constantly in fear of, and I doubt I am the only one. There are alot of unknowns in my path at the moment – how much analysis will I be able to complete? Will I see LHC data? Will I succeed in becoming a Dr? What am I going to do next? Because these obstacles can be seen from very far away it is easy to build them up into scary succeed-or-fail situations.
I also realised, on my way down the mountain, that I am daft to be afraid, because turning back doesn’t mean anything. Failing to take the hard route that day didn’t take anything away from what we achieved – we still got to Teryho. Displacement and distance are different – turning round and going home doesn’t mean you never left. Equally, if at some point in my life I reach a point and find I can’t go any further, turning round and taking another path doesn’t undo the experiences, skills and lessons I have learned along the way. In short, there’s nothing to be scared of. In which case, all you can do is keep going, enjoy the view, and see how far you get today.
I suppose that’s why I am coding at half midnight. The problems I face with code often give very little indication of how long the journey to a solution will be and when I hit certain kinds of problem I am totally stuck for a while. So, until that happens, I just want to get as far as I can, keep making progress, and see where I end up.