Reading Between the Lines about Scientists

May 19 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

There is a superb New Yorker article about a method to retrieve lost fragile early recordings of music. This music was recorded on wax or piano rolls. Playing them now is likely to destroy them, or alter the sound. The article is unfortunately behind a paywall (so no link).  But here is something from the Library of Congress about the workHere is something from LBL. But what I have to say is tangentially about the story, and more about the hero, a physicist named Carl Haber who works at Lawrence Berkeley Labs. Haber heard Micky Hart (for you millennials, he was the drummer for the Grateful Dead, and let's not get started talking about the Dead. not now) talking about the archives of aboriginal music and how they are being lost. These archives were collected by people around 1890-1940, and the collectors only cared about the words, not necessarily preserving the music. It wasn't a thing back then.

Anyway, Haber is an applied physicist who builds stuff. He worked on a way to align the detectors at CERN without touching them, and realized that it would apply to lots of other stuff. He heard Micky Hart and as they say in the science biz, a light bulb went on. an alarm went off. Sometimes things go on for significance, and sometimes they go off. I digress.

This was the first thing that got my attention. Experimental scientists are often/always/most of time looking at the rest of the world as interesting problems, or interesting questions, or very interesting what-ifs. But they/we/you are looking through the lens of what we know about problem solving (this is not a bad thing). Lots of my best ideas about my work have come from talking to someone else. And usually not someone who cares about bunny hopping as much as I do. Sometimes its about science, and sometimes its about something else entirely. And then.. mental thwap... a connection is made. Some people say being open and curious is not something you can learn. I disagree.

There are two parts of being open to new ideas. The first is learning to listen. Not just waiting for your turn to talk, but listening to and hearing what someone else is saying. And not just when they are talking about something you already care about. Yup, there are boring people out there, and you can make a type I error, thinking someone is interesting when they are not. But there are lots more type II errors, of missing interesting people.

The second part is having enough security in who you are to be able to listen, to be able to not talk about yourself, and to appreciate excellence in others. It's easier when you've just had a paper published, or been invited to submit a full NSF proposal. And there is no shame in taking time to lick your wounds after a stinging rejection. You are the expert in you-ology. You know what you know. You are good at it. You do not have to prove it to everyone. This takes time, and I know lotsa greybeards who have not mastered this (the chair from hell, for example).

Back to Haber. The story talks about how he and a grad student, Vitaliy Fadeyev built a machine to read and play old wax recordings without touching them. It was based on visual imaging. Fadeyev sort of gets lost and neglected by the end of the story. I wanted to know what happened to him.  Here is the arXiv listing for his publications.

The second thing that got my attention was a throw-away line about Haber's history. You know the end part of the beginning of the article where the author goes through how did the interesting subject got to the point of doing the interesting thing that the article is about.

"For more than fifteen years, he was part of a project that discovered the top quark.... When that work ended, Haber was added to the ATLAS team [the international alliance of labs and universities that conduct experiments at CERN]".

OK. When that work ended, he was added to another team. Did he struggle? Was it a done deal? Did he have a say in what happened? Did he have a family, a partner, worries about the future? Did he consider alternative careers? Did he have a mentor who helped get him onto the next project? We all know there is a huge history in that sentence. Many of us have lived that history. It isn't necessarily part of the story being told in the New Yorker. But given the energy that I put into thinking about the people who work with me, the people who get their salaries from my grant, the trainees for whom I am responsible, I always wonder about the gap between the "when that work ended" and "being added to the ATLAS team".






4 responses so far

  • geranium says:

    I just read this article last night, and had the exact same thought--has this guy's scientific success also earned him professional success and security? Hope so.

    Incidentally, if I'm not mistaken, Vitaliy Fadeyev is/was a postdoc. The article referred to him as a "postdoctoral student," which is another can of worms.

    Also incidentally, I had a similar reaction to another recent piece in the New Yorker, the one about neuroscientist Daniela Schiller at Mount Sinai. She is working to alleviate trauma associated with memory. It's a compelling article and at one point she mentions that her "3-year funding at Mount Sinai is almost gone" and if she doesn't secure more funding she'll be "out on the street." She's assistant faculty, perhaps she is referring to her startup. It's a small line in the piece but it lies in stark contrast to the gravity (and perhaps paradigm-shifting nature) of her research.

    • potnia theron says:

      I had the same thought reading about Schiller. I thought it read like she was adjunct/soft money faculty.

      Yet ,its hard to judge quality/innovativeness/tenure-worthness from a New Yorker article.

  • rxnm says:

    I love the transition from St Stephen to The Eleven.

  • drugmonkey says:

    The Dead sucked.

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