Writers have writer’s block while researchers have the research blues. Lately I’ve been struggling with perhaps the worst case of research blues I’ve had in a long time. Usually I am full of all sorts of crazy ideas that, while they never lead anywhere, are at least crazy and thus keep my spirits high. Lately, however, the well from which I’ve drawn my crazy ideas seems to have dried up. I’m not sure of the reasons for this: maybe I’m getting old and conservative and so I take a more pesimistic view of anything I dream about (but not pesimistic enough to start proving lower bounds :).) Maybe I’m getting dumber. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky. Maybe the time I’ve spent teaching last term has kept me from spending enough continuous time thinking about new research. Certainly I’m sure many of you have noticed a lack of anything “interesting” on this blog, and you can probably attribute this to the fact that I have been clinging to any half-baked idea I have like it is the last drop of water on a globally warmed future earth. Instead of posting dozens of half-baked muffins, I’ve only been posting half-baked crumbs.
The real question, of course, is how to pull oneself out of the research blues. I think there are many ways to approach this, and I’m pretty sure every researcher has their own methods. In the past, one way I’ve done this is to try to learn an entirely new subject area. Nothing like bashing your neurons up against a new set of problems to loosen them up and make them fire in crazy random ways again. Luckily for the next two weeks, I’m at the KITP in Santa Barbara, where I have plenty of time to try to get the neurons loose again. Unfortunately the black holes in higher dimensions program at KITP is soon closing up. Which is too bad because I certainly know nothing about the results in this field, and would love to bash my brains against what they are working on.
The research blues are a real part of being a researcher. They are rarely, however, discussed. Certainly in theoretical physics, a field in which stature seems to be assigned by being the last to blink, there are zero incentives to admit any struggles. Certainly this is one of the reasons I so like the book “Good Benito” by Alan Lightman since it does a superb job describing what it’s really like to do theory research. I’ve certainly seen my share of students and colleagues crushed under the weight of the load of research blues (will it crush me, I do not know? How can I know?) So the question I’d like to ask is what we should tell students who are just begining to consider their research careers. Too often I find it easier to just encourage the students forward, saying nice beautiful things about doing research. But lately, in my bout of pesimism, I’ve begun to think that we owe it to ourselves to tell those who are considering research in theory of the pitfalls of research. Tell them that one hazard of theory research is that you will undoubtably suffer from severe bouts of research blues (well at least those of us who can relate to the lyrics “I’m no Reykjavik pixie, no British genius who will rise and rise again…”) Certainly everyone has to judge for themselves whether they can stand the brutal beating of research blues, but pretending that all is hunky dorey seems to me a way to end up distorting your psychie into a twisted ball of frustration.
Oh well, again, not a very interesting post. See how it runs on and on without any point or interesting insight? But I’d thought at leasted I’d explain why the post was not interesting instead of just putting more tripe onto the blogosphere. At least this tripe has warning.