Monday, April 9, 2012

Scientific advice from Grandpa

I had the occasion to ask several people for advice last week, and it made me think about how much insight and depth of understanding people gain over time (assuming they are thoughtful/intelligent people).

First I got some science advice from my Grandpa; I was up very late thinking about some equations that have been bothering me recently. (Long story short; I think some people in the literature have been calculating something in a less than optimal way and then explaining themselves incorrectly--but the heart of the issue is not really in my field so I've been reading a lot and wondering if I'm just crazy.) So I wrote an email to Grandpa in the middle of the night explaining my troubles (not the equations themselves, but the big picture and the fact that I'm not sure if I should be working on something outside of my field). He was a scientist in a related field to mine, but in industry. It was really helpful to read his reply. First he made an insightful comment about the system I am working on, then he talked a bit about how it's good for you to think about things outside of your field, but you also have a greater chance of making progress in your own field.

Later in the week, I got advice about an (unrelated) engineering issue that came up with a project that TE and I are working on recently. I asked two people, both scientists/engineers in the same field (not my field). One of them is at my career stage and the other is late-midcareer. The question was really too general for a research scientist, and the first one sort of punted (or perhaps didn't want to answer), saying that it would depend on the (unknown) specific parameters, etc. So I wasn't expecting a lot of helpful advice from the more distinguished scientist, but I thought it would be an interesting conversation so I went ahead. She took the lack of specific information as a challenge. She gave me an amazingly specific overview of what the parameters probably are for our situation, then she gave me her best guess on what to do next for the greatest chance of success. She also went into detail about the underlying science without going over my head. From my point of view, it sounded like she knew everything--and was able to extemporaneously go up or down a level of detail in discussion.

It must be nice to have a huge pool of background knowledge and experience all accessible off the top of your head. I mean, the younger scientist that I asked probably knew most of the specific things she said, but it wasn't connected together for him, or at least the coherent description of it all wasn't available in his head at a moment's notice. Of course, it's easy for me to understand that more experienced people know more things, especially further from the narrow field they're currently in. But it gets me every time how some of them can just pull on that knowledge so quickly to understand a problem and narrow in on what is important about it. I am looking forward to that time in my career (if I ever get there)!

No comments: