Monday, August 27, 2012

On the Road, vol. 2

Three six-week slots ago I was writing from Berlin in the midst of a long-ish research trip. I feel like I've been moving constantly ever since. When I left for Europe I'd just accepted a new job in another corner of the world, and that month on the road was partly spent getting used to the idea of a big transition.

Returning to Chicago in early May, I had 0% of the move organized. I hadn't even told a lot of people about it! By the middle of July I was entirely packed down (well, kinda...), my deconstructed apartment was on a truck somewhere in the Midwest, hurtling its way to the Pacific in the form of a boat docked off the coast of L.A. I was saying a lot of farewells.

Right now, I'm juggling a new role and the inevitable, mundane logistics of repatriation with the process of finishing my dissertation write-up. It's quite a balancing act, but it's also the kind of spatial and life transition that — varying the specifics — young researchers have to do almost routinely. Shaun (who very kindly helped me out six weeks ago, mid-move) has had his own intense post-PhD experience, and James will be finishing soon.

Realistically, I won't be able to be a ubiquitous presence on the blog in the months to come. But I'm fundamentally committed to the idea that it represents, so that rather than bowing out for a period I'd rather attempt to maintain a lighter presence here by posting snippets that might illuminate the transition from graduate school to professional life — which is a fundamental, even foundational aspect of academic life. Over the last months lots of people have empathized by telling me about their own post-PhD transition, whether it was undertaken 3 years or 3 decades ago. So I thought I'd use my own experience as a point of departure for a conversation and some fact-sharing about the joys and sorrows of academic and extra-academic nomadism.

In actual fact, I suspect that the juggling act of the coming months will be good for my work and writing in calling for a whole new level of discipline, and so intellectual and argumentative succinctness. But we'll see. Use the comments tool to ask me questions and I'll attempt to respond. And please, share the details about your own crazy move. 

Chicago, Illinois. June 2012.
Wellington, New Zealand. August 2012.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Pushing back the boundaries

The Red Planet?

The adventure of NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover took an exciting step forward today as the pioneering little machine vaporised its first rock with its cheerfully named 'ChemCam' laser. The Curiosity mission has tapped into a huge vein of public enthusiasm for investigation and the exploration of the unknown, exemplified by the fact that over a thousand people gathered in New York's Times Square to watch the live landing. Space exploration has often occupied a romantic place in the heart of public opinion, in part because of the wonderful images that can be beamed back, which can offer a more personal connection to the work being done and give people a greater sense of ownership over scientific endeavour. The Curiosity mission is no exception - NASA is dutifully publishing the images being sent back from Mars to the delight of those of us on Earth.

The potential for images to capture the public imagination has not gone unnoticed by other branches of science. Last year I published a post about the Cell Picture Show, a project by the biology journal Cell to highlight the most striking images emerging from the ever expanding field of biological microscopy. In this post I wanted to highlight a recent edition to the project: the super-resolution gallery.

Super-resoltion is a fairly recent step forward in microscopy that allows biologists to observe life's molecular events on an unprecedentedly small scale using a range of cunning technical tricks. Researchers can now follow individual molecules as they move across the surface of a cell, or observe the machinery of processes like DNA replication in fine detail. Just like Curiosity, the missions of super-resolution are pushing back the frontiers of knowledge and exploring the unknown; not going further, but looking smaller. I would definitely recommend giving this new gallery a look: here.  

Image is property of Cell and National Institute of Health - microtubules imaged by conventional (right) and super-resolution (left) microscopy within a Drosophila cell.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Faster, higher, stronger... bigger and earlier!

The Olympic Spirit 

Let me be honest, as I write this I am heavily distracted by highlights (and now the closing ceremony) of the Olympics and as such this post won't be quite as substantial as I'd originally intended. If you're not a fan of the Olympics, then you've either never tried to be a fan of the Olympics, or you have no empathy. The point of the Olympics is not that being faster, higher or stronger actually matters, because it doesn't. Of course it doesn't. Nothing changes because of who won what in which event. The point of the Olympics is that despite the overwhelming and terrifying arbitrariness of human existence a group of people have decided to passionately care about something.

The worst sin in life is not to live. Nobody can claim that any Olympian is not living. The passion (and the story) of each and every competitor, is why the Olympics is so enjoyable to watch. And, given the arbitrariness of life, why not passionately strive to be faster, higher or stronger?

But, if faster, higher or stronger isn't for you, pick your own mountains to climb and climb them instead. Then, while you climb, share your journey with the world. And enjoy it when, as has been the case for the last two weeks, the rest of the world shares their journeys with you.

Just make sure you're climbing something!

The Spirit of Exploration 

The mountains those of us at this blog are climbing (most of the time) are the Twin Peaks of discovery and understanding. Rather than jumping a little higher or running a little faster we hope to see a little further. Our goal is to explore the unknown wildernesses of existence.

Monday, August 6, 2012

A look at science from another side of the trench

[Note from Shaun: The following is a guest post from Claudia Mignone. As you will learn from the post, Claudia is a scientist turned science writer and she shares below her thoughts on the divide between scientists and science journalism. Her past lives on both sides of this divide allow her to also see both perspectives of a world that can sometimes descend into acrimony. Enjoy... (all credit/blame for the image captions is my own to bear)]

Heidelberg! A university here sometimes awards PhD's to starving cosmologists.  (Photo by Claudia)

I am an astronomer/cosmologist by training, and have been happily working as a science writer for almost three years now. In this post, I will explore the borderline that divides the people in the “trenches”, who are actively conducting research and producing scientific knowledge and results (what we like to call the “scientific community”, whatever the term really means), and everyone else who has an interest in the outcome of such research (let's call them “the public”). The borderline is quite an interesting grey area. Its width may vary significantly and continuously on the basis of a large number of factors and it remains partly unexplored by many. As someone who has spent some time working on both sides of this blurred region, I thought I'd share some thoughts that might be useful, particularly to the folks who are still locked in the “trenches”.

Before I start doing so though, let me just add some sort of disclaimer: I don't mean to dispense any sort of “wisdom” here. All of my thoughts and observations are based on my own personal experience (plus that of many colleagues/fellow scientists that I've encountered along the way) but are by no means of a general nature. It is very well possible that others have gone through quite different paths and might disagree with the view that I developed along mine. I haven't conducted any study (neither thorough or superficial) on any of the subjects I'll mention – although I'd love to do so in the future! – so I won't draw any conclusions, because I haven't reached any – yet. But maybe I'll try to propose some advice here and there. Feel free to take them. Or not.

Friday, August 3, 2012

One year in The Trenches...

The five year extrapolation

Today is The Trenches of Discovery's first birthday. It's been a pretty cool year. It hasn't exceeded my wildest expectations, but it has exceeded my worst fears. We're chugging along nicely, with growth figures that, so far, match a pretty regular exponential growth. At the moment our viewing figures are still relatively humble, but if they keep following this exponential curve then, in about five years, the entire world will be checking out The Trenches of Discovery every day (I just made that up, I can't be bothered working it out in detail – but it's close enough). After that, I guess the governments of the world will have to organise successive baby-booms to keep our viewing stats rising.

Tell us about yourself

I thought, to mark the occasion, I would do two things. Firstly, I'll do something I've seen some other blogs do, which is to ask you, the reader, to tell us about yourself in the comments. What's your background? Where are you from? How did you find this place? What sort of posts of ours do you like? What is your favourite colour? What is your quest? What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow? The usual. I'd love to know who the dudes out there are that are reading what we write. The comments are still completely unrestricted, so you can post as anonymously as you wish. Feel free to ask us questions in the comments too.

Trench Points

The second thing I want to do is have a small competition. I will give 20 Trench Points to the first commenter who correctly guesses what our most viewed post is. Everyone else who correctly guesses will get 5 Trench Points and as a consolation I'll give 1 Trench Point to anyone who's guess is one of our five most viewed posts. Then, for a super-bonus, if people want to guess how many views the most viewed post has I will give another 20 Trench Points to the closest guess. I'll announce the results this time next week.

What are Trench Points?

In case you're wondering I don't know what Trench Points are either. But, I'm sure that in five years time when we rule the world, they'll matter, so you better start collecting them now. More realistically, I guess, when we sell out and get merchandise they'll be able to be exchanged for free Trench Goodness. Clearly, this will only be true for people who don't post anonymously and use some sort of registered account. In the meantime, while we don't rule the internet, or have Goodness to give away, Trench Points will have to just be about inner feelings of awesomeness and achievement in life, as well as, of course, bragging rights with all your friends.

For anyone who does post with some sort of registered account (i.e. gmail address, Wordpress account, etc), I will keep a record of accumulated Trench Points over time and put them in a table somewhere.

Well, what are you waiting for, tell us about yourself...