Workaholic Geeky Nonsense

The semester is about to start. Which means that the summer is over. Which means that, in order to fully get into all the fall proposal writing around all the undergrad course teaching and insane service, I have to get these last two papers done and submitted, like, yesterday.


Over the past few days, I worked  12-14 hour every day. Really focused, high-productivity, long days. I fuckin’ loved it. I love working non-stop, and if it were possible to somehow forgo sleep, at least temporarily, without loss of sanity of productivity, I would love to be able to just go-go-go.

Man, I love working.

When I don’t waste my time and energy worrying about whether or not I am appropriately recognized and admired, the bottom line is that I love reading papers, looking at data, analyzing data, coming up with mathematical models and appropriate algorithms for their numerical implementation, troubleshooting, making graphs, writing papers, and talking with graduate student about every single one of these aspects of my job.

I love doing science.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, I am actually a good role model for inspiring people to leave academia. More than one student has said that seeing me and the insane schedule that I keep has convinced them that mine is a job they don’t want.

I read all the time all around the web about there being a surplus of PhDs who all think they will be professors, who are then all surprised when that proves impossible and are also for some reason oblivious to the fact that there are other things they can do. Apparently, I do my part — without even trying! — to discourage young’uns from pursuing an academic career ; the few who were not discouraged have done very well for themselves!

I don’t know what it is that other professors do that (supposedly) makes all of their students and postdocs think they want the professor’s job and there is nothing else. I bet the professors look really cool while doing their job. Luckily, I never look cool, especially not while doing my job.

How do I achieve this elusive goal of discouraging all but a few? You can do it, too!
Look sleep-deprived and incessantly drink coffee, having mild panic  attacks when a coffee cup approaches empty. Send emails before 7 am and after 11 pm. Respond to their emails immediately no matter what time of day or week. Share with them when the deadlines are and name all the things that depend upon certain grants being renewed (their food, shelter, tuition, and health benefits). Work with them closely on every paper and proposal and let them know how much effort goes really, truly into every piece that is meant to be read and understood by others while bearing your signature. Keep track of all the details of all of their many very different projects in your head and be able to give each of their talks at a moment’s notice with no prep whatsoever. Push them to do better and lift them up and don’t let them give up on themselves or their work. Forward them emails from industrial collaborators about job openings. Encourage them to attend all manner of professional workshops to broaden their soft skill set. Sleep less than any of them and take less vacation than any of them.


In life, there are various quantifiable aspects that change over time. More often than not, it’s not the value of the function that we care about, as much as the sign of the first derivative. Sometimes a positive first derivative is good, sometimes a negative one.


If anyone tells you that calculus is stupid or useless, you can print this post, crumble it into a ball, and shove said ball into the mouth of the heretic spouting such nonsense. Calculus is an almost absolute goodness, only surpassed by complex calculus... And calculus on spheres, donuts, and other cool objects, also known as differential geometry… *geekgasmic sigh*


You know how The Oatmeal made me grumpy the other day? It’s all forgiven, as I came across an old classic — The Motherfucking Pterodactyl comic. And there is even a song (below)! It is hilarious,  but view at your own peril.


Lastly, among the comments to the last post emerged the awesomeness that is this guide to acting like a Minnesotan. It has a very Monty Python feel!

Professorial Hypertension

In STEM fields, a graduate student works on supervised research and is part of a research group led by a professor. Learning how to write up technical papers for publication is one of the most important parts of PhD training, so the student will typically be tasked with producing the first draft of a manuscript, which then gets heavily edited by others involved in the work, most of all the professor. This practice, however, is not without danger


Double Bind

Career women face a double bind: the more competent and assertive they are, the less liked they are (these traits are positively correlated with likability for men, negatively for women), and reduced likability makes women less effective as leaders . If they are not very assertive, they may be  well-liked but they are not perceived as very competent, so their effectiveness suffers again. So damned if you do, damned if you don’t. 

For the geeky among us, here’s a handy illustrated guide to women’s careers. Comic7_DoubleBind

On Teaching & Research

In a comment thread on someone else’s blog, I can’t remember whose, a commenter said that they never understood how or why teaching and research were related.

The following is a truth universally acknowledged, but I am going to say it anyway:

You have no idea how much you don’t know about something

until it’s time to explain it to someone else.

It never ceases to amaze me how much I learn every time I teach an undergraduate course. The process to trying to convey something to the uninitiated is quite fascinating as well as useful. One comment that I get fairly often in official teaching evaluations is that the students appreciate that I can explain things several different ways. I take great pride in those comments, which mean that I am succeeding in doing what I think is extremely important. If you really, I mean really know something inside and out, you can come from several different directions and still reason your way to the central idea. You can approach it at many angles until you find one that clicks with your student. 

My undergrad degree was in theoretical physics and everyone’s teaching style was heavily mathematical; I loved it and I honestly thought that was the only way. When in doubt, write down the appropriate partial differential equations, take a deep breath and roll up your sleeves, then attack as formally as possible (often expanding in terms of various special functions/orthogonal polynomials) and see what happens. I had a professor in college who said he saw everything through equations, that diagrams and other visual aids were completely useless to him. I now know that am very visual, as are many people, but at that time I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a learning style, and not that anybody would care about what I preferred. Anyway, I got used to viewing everything through the lens of the formalism. Some would say this is a very European style of doing theoretical physics.

Then I came to the US and realized that you could and should go “intuition first.” You can  see/smell/taste/hear/touch the solution, or at least some of its salient features, before actually deriving it rigorously. I started seeing the concepts familiar from my undergrad studies in a new, playful, relaxed fashion. The concepts were no less true, but just became very very fun, and it was quite liberating. Some would say this is a very American style of doing physics.

I teach courses with a very heavy physics focus to young people who are not physics majors, but who really need to understand this stuff very well in order to be able to apply it to something practical. Much of the material can be understood qualitatively, but unless you can compute numbers, you can’t actually use any of it. Many students also don’t like math as much as they ideally should, and this unfortunate distaste is part of what prevents them from making connections between disparate subfields based on the common mathematics. So it is important to first teach them to feel the problems, and then, once they are empowered through their qualitative understanding, hit them with the math and show them how math translates into numbers what their gut is telling them to be true.

This experience in teaching students who have the background, interests, and ultimate career goals so different from mine has critically changed how I approach my job now with respect to my junior years. Teaching is of great importance for giving talks, writing proposals and papers. It  helps you perfect the art of presenting cogently and (hopefully) engagingly; how else would you make yourself practice several times a week just for the sake of practice? Ok, maybe the über-organized ones among us would anyway, but I know I just wouldn’t. 

One of my grad students  said “You advisor is there to give you intuition”; I will take it as a compliment. When you are not the person who did the experiments or wrote the code, realizing when things do or don’t make sense in ways that are not trivially obvious is an absolutely critical skill for doing science .

Today I had a group meeting and a student presented his research data in the context of the work of another group. A premise that the other group had used was fairly inconsistent with some basic features of the systems considered. Another student had some doubts and we ended up having a full-blown discussion on the board on some of the key elements of quantum statistical physics as applied to the systems we study. I was able to basically give a succinct and clear (so says me) 10-min lecture to the group on the spot; while these are not the concepts I usually teach myself, I teach enough related material at very different levels that the whole skeleton of my knowledge has thereby been strengthened and these pieces have fallen into place without me even realizing it. Teaching is therefore not unlike milk — enjoyable and good for your intellectual “bones.” It helps your mind carry heavier loads  and run faster, which makes it better at research.  

How do you view the relationship between teaching and research?

Name That Kingpin!

I loved the show Breaking Bad.  Walter White teaches high-school chemistry and discovers  he has lung cancer. Walter is a brilliant chemist, who made some financially imprudent moves in his early days and got cheated out of the subsequently multibillion-dollar company he had founded with two peers. Out of money and fearing for his family’s future upon his death, he takes up cooking meth with a small-time crook and former student Jesse Pinkman. Walter develops a recipe for ultrahigh-purity blue meth, which becomes a hit with the users and crooked distributors alike. Through the seasons, we see Walter become increasingly more vicious as he rises through the drug distribution ranks in the American southwest.

Among the criminals, Walter White is known as Heisenberg. By the end of season 5, the name Heisenberg makes sweaty New Mexico crooks tremble  with fear. Walter is a scientist and chooses this alias because of Werner Heisenberg, a famous German theoretical physicist, well-known for this work on the uncertainty relationships in quantum mechanics and on ferromagnetism.

But why Heisenberg, why was this particular scientist’s name chosen for the show? I googled a little, and there is some inconclusive evidence that the name Heisenberg may be because Walter cannot be both good and bad at the same time, or because he and his sidekick Jesse Pinkman are two sides of the same coin, or some such thing hinting at the uncertainty relationships.  To this I say: whatever… Heisenberg is a great-sounding name for a nerd turned drug lord. It’s got the “zen” and “berg” sounds, which together make a name both strong and ominous.

This got me thinking: If you happen to know a scientist who it thinking of starting an undercover illicit operation among hardened criminals and is in desperate need of a moniker that will pay homage to his/her geeky side while being sufficiently scary to keep said criminals from cutting his/her throat, what kind of name would you recommend? To that end, I decided to look into the names of famous scientists of different stripes, where by famous I mean “when I google ‘famous field-of-science-ist’  I get some options with pics that Google calls ‘ scientists frequently mentioned on the web’. ” Click to enlarge:




Here are some from the lists above that I think have a kingpin-like quality, mainly because I can imagine Walter White in glasses and his gone-bad hat utter “My name is such-and-such”and sound kind of tough and scary: Heisenberg, Wigner, Berzelius, Avogadro, Bunsen, Copernicus, Gauss, Riemann, Leibnitz, Galois, Fibonacci. (There are also some  good names that are missing above, such as Landau.)

My name is Avogadro… Fear me!

What do you think, which ones among the famous scientist names could be effective as aliases for a scary movie drug lord?