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Zoe Louise Matthews | ASY-EOS | UK

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Watch your step, reality is coming

It’s been a while since my last post and I have been rather busy, so I would like to welcome our new bloggers, and in the spirit of Paul’s first post (and in the absence of more time), I am going to hold off from telling you the exciting physics things I have queued up and instead offer up a little of what it feels like to be me right now. Paul is right that we have the chance to show the real side of scientists – we don’t live in a sci-fi fairy-tale, but the reality is still quite unusual.

I have started to change, seemingly rather suddenly. I am approaching my final, most important year of my degree. I can feel my brain stretching in preparation. The goals of my PhD are becoming more formed in my mind. The millions of tiny bits of interesting information are joining together little by little. The slow progress of my work is starting to become relevant. Real data at the LHC is getting closer (hurrah!) and the realities that come with it are becoming clearer. The frequency of my moments of confidence and clarity is increasing (although the frequency of my moments of feeling like a complete alien in my subject has not changed, and I am not sure how normal that is.) I am getting more and more terrified as a huge wave of occurences comes into view and I am not sure I am ready for it. I am currently attending the CERN/FNAL summer school, based here at CERN this year. As soon as I have time I want to blog about all the exciting things I am starting to get my head around in these lectures. The accelerator physics of the LHC and what really happened on the 19th of September, some of the common pitfalls of statistical analysis, QCD and the physics of the models that simulate the events I use to practise analysis on every day to name a few. So fascinating and so relevant. I am seeing my experiment, its detectors and design, in a different way than I used to. The more trips to ALICE I make, the closer I get to doors-shut no-access time, so I am taking it less for granted. The summer has made an entrance and reminds me constantly that I have been working here for a whole year now. My time is running out. Collisions are coming in just a few months. It is all about to get very real.

The more I learn within my field, the more I seem to learn about human nature, and the reality of research. Science is not the quick, easy straight path to the truth I would have it be in an ideal world – it is a very slow and compromised process, and people are not perfect. We are prone to error and accident, attraction to beautiful ideas and attachment to longstanding ones, distraction and misinterpretation and eagerness to jump-the-gun. Not only mistakes but slow communication, preconceptions, external pressure, pride and politics get in the way. We are so disasterously human. Of course, if we weren’t, we wouldn’t be so fascinated, so persistent and critical, and that is exactly why science is so strong. We come up with new ways to explain what we observe, and we push the boundaries of observation to refine our explanations. The truth endures, and everything else eventually falls away.

Working at the cutting edge of your field just as a whole new unseen area is about to unveil itself has its advantages – everything you do is new and exciting. You get to start to answer real questions. The reality of research can be very frustrating but this is a fantastic motivator to get you through the slow days. The only trouble is that you are surrounded by conflicting theories, predictions, expectations, ideas. Once the results start flooding in, you might find that some of what falls away does so from under your feet. Couple that with the unpredictable nature of a project as big as the LHC approaching the stage of start-up, and you will find yourself rather unsure of what’s coming and when. I’m not complaining – it’s quite a thrill. I’m giddier than Christmas eve at 6 years old. I’m more nervous than undergraduate final exam results. I’m desperate to bursting. This is the reality. I’m not naive anymore but it still seems pretty fairy-tale to me.

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2 responses to “Watch your step, reality is coming”

  1. Paul Jackson says:

    Nice post Zoe. I particularly like the phrase you used, “It is all about to get very real”, extremely well put!! Hope the CERN/FNAL school is proving useful.

  2. Shawn Haynes says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels like an alien in their subject sometimes. Even though I’m just an undergrad, I really appreciate your personal perspective on life in the field. Thanks. Keep em’ comin’.