Thursday, April 06, 2006

Young and Stupid

This afternoon I got stopped on the 101 by a police car some 30 miles south of Santa Barbara. Stefan is convinced that I can smell radar controls, so I was driving exactly at the limit, but the guys were suspicious about my car. Pulling to the right, I forgot that I own a CA drivers licence and my accent got significantly worse. I waved around with my pinkish German licence, claiming that I just moved here recently and had no idea that a front plate is required, and I am so sorry, officer.

It might have helped that I was wearing my favourite dress. Still, I had to open the trunk and let the guy poke around in my trash. Stefan left me with the bottle of wine he won for his poster at the SQM. He had neatly packed it into a plastic box with some tacos and even a bottle opener - no disasters with my thoughtful future husband. At least I had managed to put the wine in the trunk, where it still is. Anyway, the officer was very puzzled about the bottle opener and made some remark that sounded like 'always be prepared, huh'. I gave him evil look No. 17, which he chose to misinterpret as a nasty girls look and his colleague began to giggle. I promised to get a front plate (as I have promised several times before) and check my signal lights (seems some aren't working) and ignored the speed limit the next 30 miles.

Back at the department, I was lingering around in the kitchenette, waiting for the coffee machine. Someone-whose-name-I-probably-should-remember came by, and asked me whether I was a new grad. stud. Having explained that I am neither new nor a grad stud, but actually a postdoc here since last year, he apologized, but left me wondering how old I have to get, before I am mistaken as the secretary instead.

This was kind of a lengthy introduction why I started reading popular science books. Again - I did not touch any since 10th grade or so, being fed up with always the same incomplete and impossible to understand explanations. Last year however, I was at some airport being faced with the omnipresent Nora Roberts and Dean Koontz products. Besides this, there was the usual selection of improve-your-life books and travel guides.

Therefore, I settled on Brian Greene's Elegant Universe, something that I would not have bought in a sensible book store.

Reading the first chapters -- most of which I skipped, because they explain very basis stuff -- a women sat next to me and started some smalltalk. She had also read the book, found it incomprehensible and much too complicated. Since she saw me skipping the first chapters, she assumed I had the same problem. This made me realize that I actually must have learned SOMETHING during the last TWELFE years of education. I did not tell her I found the book kind of trivial.

I mean, usually I read papers on the arxiv and it happens only rarely that I really understand one. In some sense that is depressing and sometimes I have the impression that I have not learned anything since I left high school.

So, since that time, I have read several recent popular science books, about which I might post sometime. I read them not so much because of the scientist-for-non-scientist-part but to remind me how important it is to step back every now and then, and focus on the basis that we share.

In my opinion, it is a huge problem that the front of research has split so much, that only small groups of people are really able to follow each others work. Is it good that most of the new papers are so specialized, that their content is no longer extractable without digging into a whole collection of papers, circling around some sub-sub-hybrid model and it's possible relationship with the zeros of the zeta function or whatever? It is good that it takes several decades, if not a whole career, to get an overview about the status on any field of interest? And why do I often find that papers seem to be written on purpose such that they are as incomprehensible as possible?

I keep thinking that I am just young and stupid. But I can't avoid having the impression that in a time of such rapid expansion in scientific knowledge, it is more important than ever to keep things together and enable people to get an overview without drowning them in details. The living reviews in physics are an excellent step into this direction.

Have a nice weekend,


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