Itinerant Science - Out of the Office and into the Wild

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No one really believes cubicles foster creativity - so why do work in them?

If I ask you where and how scientists work, you probably conjure an image like this.

Labs are the popular image of science and rightfully so; experimental tests are how science distinguishes its efforts at truth and knowledge from philosophy, literature, and religion.

Yet fewer and fewer scientists actually spend the majority of their time in a lab. In the early days of modern science (the Renaissance), pretty much all scientists spent some of their time doing experiments in a lab. Since then, however, physics and other disciplines have increasingly divided into “theory” and “experiment.” Essentially, this means some people (theorists) spend most of their time trying to explain and describe the world with mathematics, while others (experimentalists) spend most of their time designing and building experiments to test whether those mathematics do indeed describe the world. This divide freed theorists to, if they chose, go decades without entering a lab and work anywhere they wanted. More recently, computers have done the same for experimentalists. For instance, many of those working on the famed Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland live outside the country and do their work from computers in their home countries. Even experimentalists who live just across the street from their lab can do much of the work analyzing data and buying new equipment from their home computers. I know one graduate student who can actually move lasers and mirrors around on a table to set up optics experiments in the lab, all from his living room. Although some scientists might need a computer to do their work, laptops, iPhones, and Blackberries make it possible even for them to work anywhere.

Now, if I told you that you could work anywhere you wanted, I’m guessing this wouldn’t be high on your list.

Yet despite the increasing freedom to work from anywhere, most scientists I’ve met still choose to spend the vast majority of their time sitting in front of a computer in an office - theorists and experimentalists alike. There are certainly some advantages. For instance, it’s easy to talk to others you are working with if you are all in the same room. But mostly, I think it’s a mixture habit, lack of trying other approaches, and the “guilt of waste” - someone gave me an office, so I better use it.

This freedom to work anywhere has always seemed to me to be one of the best perks in science and to see it unexploited was a little disheartening. Inspired by those such as famed vagabond mathematician Paul Erdos, I spent all day yesterday roaming parks, haunting cafes, exploring crypts, and traipsing about downtown Torino, books, papers, and thoughts in tow. The goal was to see whether this would merely be fun or if it actually be more “productive” as well. For me, itinerant science was a clear winner; I’m both happier and more creative on the move.

The Experiment
When studying a topic or problem that is very new to me, my mind tends to gets saturated after a short time. If I continue after reaching this “mental saturation point”, no new info seems to stick. Later in this post, I’ll explore this idea more, but for now, what it means is that a few hours of spin interactions, characteristic functions, and other physical and mathematical paraphernalia in the early morning, it’s time to head to the park!

The long walk from atop my mountain abode through winding forests and old stone walls gives me time to digest the new ideas I encountered in the morning. I see if I can rederive everything in my head and highlight the most important results. I also get a chance to play with the new ideas. Wandering along the beautiful bank of the Po River, I imagine possible ways to build computers and memories out of the new physical models I’ve encountered. Rowers skim gracefully across the river to my right, lizards scurry across the path in front of me, and birds flit back and forth across the path from tree to tree. The subtle balance of the calm park and the activity of life provide just enough stimulation to keep my mind happy but not distracted.

Walking and thinking is about the fastest way for me to work up an appetite so I wander into one of my favorite cafes in Torino. The solitude of independent thinking and problem solving in science is made of two parts excitement and satisfaction and one part loneliness (Einstein called it the “solitude which is painful in youth but delightful in maturity”). So bumping into people you know at cafes is a nice dose of humanity! While enjoying my meal, I also get a chance to toss around a research problem I’ve been working on, requestioning certain assumptions we made, rethinking whether we are asking the right questions in the first place, and considering the relation of our problem to others I’ve encountered in the past.

The cafe is nice but the staple of my adventures is wandering about in parks. USC neuroscientist Irving Biederman once pointed at a lecture on the neuroscience of pleasing visual stimuli that the reason we might enjoy natural scenes is that its beauty is of a type that doesn’t require a great deal of complex computation and active thought to enjoy, as opposed to the cognitive pleasures of reading or thinking about new ideas.[1] Whatever the reason, my brain appreciates these strolls through the park and I linger a while to review some bits of probability theory that I’ve encountered in a few scientific papers but never studied myself.

One of the other key elements of these strolls through the city are the surprises. While wandering around the beautiful Cattedrale di San Giovanni Battista (home of the famous Shroud of Turin), I discover a stairway down to the crypt, which reveals the remains of several ancient Roman buildings that occupied the same location over the last couple millennia. Soon after, I stumble across the royal team room and its insanely extensive walls of dining sets for a range of social occasions I didn’t even know existed. I find these surprises to be extremely helpful when thinking about difficult scientific problems for a couple reasons. One, they may provide inspiration. Bumping into a strange geometric pattern of Roman tiles might give me an idea of how a bunch of magnets might be able to stably align or might get me thinking about history at which time I’ll question the historical development of the scientific problem I’ve been thinking about. Two, they provide a short distraction. Now distraction is not usually the first thing you desire when trying to think but I believe a minimal level can be helpful. Picture a tree. When thinking about a problem, you usually start with the big picture and work your way down to the details. You make assumptions and small decisions along the way - “I’ll take the limit as the system size goes to infinity before I let time head that way” or, maybe more familiarly, “I must leave on Saturday so that I have an extra day to arrive by Monday”. Each of these choices represents you choosing a branch as you move your way out from the trunk. You continue making small, “local” choices and eventually you end up a “leaf” - a conclusion. You might find that you don’t like the conclusion and might suspect a better one exists, but you think you made every decision the best you could along the way. Now what? A short distraction at this time is essential. It takes your mind away from the problem. When you return to it, you start at the “trunk” again - the big picture. You get a chance to review all those tiny decisions you made along the way, this time with the hindsight of realizing what the consequences of each choice is. Sometimes, you’ll make the same assumptions and sometimes you’ll choose different ones. You may arrive at the same conclusion or a new one. Without the distraction, you might be so convinced that you made good choices along the way, that you aren’t capable of questioning your approach at that time. All in all, a short distraction gives you the opportunity to requestion your assumptions about a problem with the benefit of hindsight about the conclusion that those assumptions led to.

With all this rethinking and requesting going on, by now I’ve got some things I want to calculate. The only drawback to thinking while wandering is that it can be inconvenient to do calculations on a busy sidewalk or in an ancient crypt. The Italians have a fantastic tradition called the “aperitivo” - an evening drink with friends and an array of unlimited snacks. Not just potato chips or salted peanuts but a delicious selection of local vegetables, cheeses, grains, fish, and meats from grilled eggplants and sautéed spinach to hearty orzo dishes and fresh fish fillets - a proper meal. The change of scenery and stimulation again brings with it fresh inspiration and ideas.

After a meal and some calculations to confirm some thoughts of the day, its time for a walk and my final study location of the day is the St. Giovanni Battista Hospital. That, however, is a story that will be saved for another post.

  1. At least, that’s what I recall, but I searched for a transcript of the talk or a related paper but couldn’t find anything relevant.