Research Blues

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.

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16 Responses to Research Blues

  1. Peter Brooke says:

    As someone who is stuggling to get enough together to hand in a PhD, reading a post like this is extremely encouraging. Although somewhat sadistic on my part, it is nice to know that even the best in the field are human ;-). I hope that it doesn’t last too long for you; maybe it’s time to take that long overdue holiday.

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  2. iso42 says:

    Perhaps you just suffer from not enough skiing ?

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  3. Dave Bacon says:

    Oh, that disease (not enough skiing) is not curable!

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  4. hackticus says:

    Video games and alcaholic beverages are a good short-term cure for any type of blues.

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  5. Robin Blume-Kohout says:

    Yep, this is an oldie but a goody (or something like that). I think the canonical case is Feynman, who writes about his research blues at Cornell in “Surely You’re Joking”. If I recally correctly, he was in precisely the same situation as you — new place, new teaching load, no new research for a year. Somebody senior told him to relax and not worry about it, so he did. Needless to say, it worked out okay.

    ‘Course, Feynman’s stories should be taken with a grain of salt. But… they’re usually true in a narrative sense, even if not in a literal one. I take that story to mean that Feynman knew all about the research blues — and his reputation for fermenting crazy ideas trumps even yours, Dave!

    Nobel prize winners aside, I hoist my espresso cup in salute to your courage in blogging something we’ve all experienced. I’ve sure been there. I think you’ve answered your own question — tell ’em the truth. And perservere.

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  6. I don’t think you’ll be crushed. I’ve had the research blues most of my career, but life goes on. Learn something new. It makes you feel better, and sometimes it gives you ideas.

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  7. Suresh says:

    great post. always comforting to know that others go thru the research blues as well. I have found that doing mindless hacking always helps me :). like spiffying up my website or fiddling with some hacking that I’d been putting off for a while.

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  8. Steve says:

    Come to New Mexico and visit. We’ll work on that crazy error correction for QM thing you told me about at SQuInT. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve turned a crumb into a muffin (witness the non-associative algebra thing).

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  9. Dave, research is almost all blues. Here’s what an honest grant proposal would look like:

    “My plan is to grope around in utter darkness, doing nothing of lasting value, but not doing too much harm either. Maybe I’ve stumble onto something important, which is more than 99.999% of humanity will ever do. But if I had any idea what that something was, it’d be named after me already.”

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  10. I’ve –> I’ll

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  11. Tez says:

    When I have the research blues I read physics blogs to cheer me up. And this one is a miserable failure!

    More seriously: The one advantage of the blues is that it normally happens when you don’t have pressing admin to do, or a paper to finish, or a talk to prepare or… Which means you probably have time to just sit on your butt and think. I like to frequently re-read the dedication at the start of Misner-Thorne-Wheeler, and reflect on how privileged we are to be paid to do that…

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  12. mick says:

    Come to Innsbruck and visit. You can ski, mess about in ion trap labs, drink lemoncello and talk some crazy ideas with me.

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  13. scerir says:

    ‘I visited John Wheeler in Austin, and then John Bell at CERN. Talking to Bell (that is, John Bell, not Bell Labs) was a traumatic experience. I wrote to you that I lost faith in physics. What should I do? You answered ‘keep your tools sharp.’ I followed your advice, and I recovered from the trauma.’ – Asher Peres (to a friend)
    [ btw, the previous poster wrote ‘lemoncello’, but it is called ‘limoncello’, from Sorrento and Capri … http://www.limoncello.com/ ]

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  14. Alejandro Rivero says:

    So, what is the goal (aims, focus, etc…) of Quantum Computation? (this is, of your field of research)

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  15. Perry says:

    Well, you’ve just moved to a new job, perhaps one where you are not literally surrounded by other QI people, you’ve had to get teaching notes together. I’d say its normal for ya to fell this way now, and I’m sure it will pass. Also when you have great expectations of yourself, you can be your harshest critic for sure.

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  16. Daniel Lidar says:

    Surround yourself by brilliant people bursting with ideas. It’s unlikely all will suffer research blues at the same time, and one or more is bound to inspire in you that renewed enthusiasm and insight.

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