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Susanne Reffert | IPMU | Japan

View Blog | Read Bio

Loss of Focus

Back when I started my diploma thesis (more or less equivalent to a master’s thesis) in theoretical physics, I found I had a problem. How could a person spend all day thinking? It was so tiring for my brain!
Earlier on, I had done a semester project with the laser physicists. There, when you were a bit at a loss about what to do next, you could just sit down and clean your optics very thoroughly. You could give your brain a break while still feeling you were doing something useful.
In theoretical physics, there’s no cleaning of the optics to do. You’re lucky if you have some calculation to type! If you’re brain is too tired to think, often there’s no other work-related thing you can do. And I felt terrible! I remember once sitting outside the theoretical physics building during the time of my diploma thesis, taking a break, because I had to. A guy who was already a PhD student passed by and I confessed to him my inability to keep thinking for 8 hours straight. He just laughed and said it was okay to take breaks and that I would just get used to it.
And he was right. I guess, partly my brain adapted to the task, and partly I just stopped stressing about it. I still can’t think in a very focused fashion for hours on end. But that’s okay. When I’m really at a loss of what to do, I sort through my pile of scientific papers and clean up my desk. When I just need a few minutes, I do something else like watering the office plants or so.
There are countless hours spent by the theory community surfing the web, reading the blogs, or facebook . But that’s okay. In our work, it’s not just the hours worked that count. Sometimes you work for hours and don’t get anywhere, and at other times you can make a major breakthrough in five minutes. It’s the quality that counts. And a rested brain is more likely to produce good ideas.

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