For most of my career I have had the feeling that I am still at school. I seem to have moved from primary school to secondary school to college to grad school and onwards without thinking about it too much: I liked school, and people kept offering me opportunities to do more of it, and I happily took them. I still get to spend time doing the same kinds of puzzles that I was given in math class aged 5, and it’s great. One thing that has changed over time, though, is the number of people I do those puzzles with. One of the many eye-opening things about moving to California was how gregarious the Stanford physics research community was. Interactions, discussion, visits, connections, all these things were highly prized, with a great deal of thought and effort put into making them go well. It was a different world from the one I grew up in, and I loved it.
At Stanford, I got interested in how big science works. How can hundreds of people all collaborate on making some of the hardest measurements ever attempted? There are so many details that need attending to, but also so much data to process: wrapping our heads around the task takes a lot of communication. On many different scales, between groups of varying size, meeting at varying frequency and transmitting varying amounts of information - we put a lot of effort into designing and facilitating communication. These days we have a lot of technology for communicating with each other, over the internet. We write documents, give talks, meet up by video, message each other, share results, all while looking at rectangular glowing screens of various sizes, and tapping away on our plastic typewriters. There’s a buzz to it, the doing of more, the figuring of things out faster - and we are getting there, solving our problem together.
But: it’s exhausting! Every single one of my colleagues is in a more or less constant battle to reduce the amount of email they get. I’ve resorted to setting New Year’s Resolutions to “Keep On Top Of Things” (last year) and “Not To Look Away” (this year), because part of my job is to be responsible for all our communication working well, even though on many mornings I would rather not open my heaving inbox at all. There seems to be only so much communication I can do: I used to be much more sociable outside of work, but these days when I get home I am happy to quietly switch off. Weekends have become more and more precious, and the garden has become an oasis of calm. I’ve been surprised to find that while weeding, planting, or digging, it’s not possible to think hard about anything else apart from the task at hand, and it’s a welcome break! Having said that, I can just about turn the dirt in my mind over as I go, lightly pondering the problems of the week, and sometimes solutions grow slowly, to be picked fresh on Monday morning. But it’s good to be in the garden incommunicado, recuperating before reconnecting.