Curiosity

A few weeks ago, when the first news on the Higgs boson came out, a friend of mine sent me an email requesting that I write a blog entry explaining what it’s all about (that blog entry will be coming next week on Laser Mom). He said that understanding this part of physics was hard for him as an engineer since he did not have much background in modern physics. He also asked,  “Why do we care about what gives us our mass?”

His question made me think about research in general. Of course, as scientists and engineers, we all write proposals to get funding, and papers for scientific journals, and give conference talks, and spend quite a bit of time explaining why what we do is useful and will save the world and make us all rich someday. But really, why do we really do our research? I think that most us can honestly say (hopefully!) that we do it because it’s really cool. It’s fun. Why do we want to find out what gives us our mass? Because we can. We are curious and want to understand how things work and what new things we can accomplish.

One of the things that I have done in the recent past for research is to shine laser beams into glass or polymers (i.e. plastic) and see what happens. It turns out you can use the energy in the laser beam to change the properties of the materials for practical engineering reasons – creating small feature sizes so that we can have better, faster, smaller computers and to write optical waveguides so that we can send information (internet) easier and faster from place to place. But I did not really study this just for practical reasons – it’s just fun! (The practical reasons are, of course, important to get funding to get paid to do what I love.)

I have to wonder if the first scientists to write optical wires in glass with high power lasers were not thinking (at least a little bit), “This laser is so cool. I wonder what would happen if we focused it down into that piece of glass? Will the glass vaporize? Let’s try it!” (I believe Davis et al. were the first to publish on this topic.)

Perhaps they were much more organized and focused in their pursuits, but I have to admit that most of the interesting things I have accomplished in the lab have started out with, “I wonder what would happen if…”

My one year old daughter is a natural experimentalist. She loves to try out new things and do things just to see what happens. If I drop this, what will happen? What if I pull on this handle? What will happen if I pull myself off of this landing (Ow!)? It is amazing to see how quickly she learns new things just by exploring and trying everything that comes to mind.

We have all (hopefully) mastered the basics of gravity at this point, but our curiosity and desire to try out new things is what makes us good scientists. Shining a laser beam into a light sensitive polymer and watching what happens just fascinates me. There are so many interesting things going on, from basic light propagation in glass/plastic to chemical reactions in the material.

Then there are a the cool things you do when you put two laser beams together – using different colored laser beams of different shapes to activate different chemicals in a material and making super tiny little dots in the material. There were three papers in Science a few years ago (May 15 2009 issue) discussing different ways of combining optics and chemistry to create features that were smaller than anything you could do before with these lasers (By the way, you can get all three of those papers for free if you sign up on the Science website.)

Oh sure, there are lots of good practical applications of shining lasers into materials (faster internet and computers?) and those are probably the things I will tell you if you ask me to give a talk on this research and certainly what I will tell you if I need to write a grant proposal.

But why do I really work with lasers, shine them into materials, use them for microscopy? Why are the scientists at CERN looking for the Higgs Boson?

I think the Mars rover’s name covers it: Curiosity.  Anyone who watched the video of Curiosity’s landing (YouTube – watch between minutes 5 and 6) can see the excitement and joy that scientists and engineers get when they have successfully completed a mission, discovered a new particle, built a new gadget or made measurements that no one before them has ever been able to do.

As scientists and engineers, we are a curious folk. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in funding, papers, etc. that we forget why we do what we do. That’s one of the reasons I am excited to go to an optics conference this fall. Conferences are a great opportunity to explore and enjoy that curiosity. We can go to talks outside our field, talk to other scientists we have never met, and get outside our normal routine. This setting always re-energizes me and gives me lots of new ideas of things I would like to explore when I get back to the lab.

Of course, with an infant at home, I do not really need to go anywhere. Babies are natural experimentalists and seeing her intense concentration in trying something new and her joy at discovering new things reminds me every day why science is so cool. We are all born curious, and hopefully we keep that curiosity as we grow older though we each tend to focus it in different directions.

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Scientific Parenting

I have recently started reading a book entitled Scientific Teaching by Jo Handelsman, Sarah Miller and Christine Pfund. I have had this book for several years now and never found the time to open it. Not that I have a lot of extra time in my day for intellectual reading now, but I have at least made it through most of the introduction. It has made me think a bit about how teaching, science and parenting are all related.

The book talks about approaching teaching science in the same way that we approach research in science. I have not had any real training in teaching (or parenting!), but have had a lot of training as a scientific researcher, so it makes sense to make use of that training to help me in teaching and parenting. Also, as the book points out, teaching science should be done in the same way that we approach science – completely separating the two will never help our students learn what science is all about. Science is about being curious, exploring the world, and solving problems – these are all things that I hope are important to my daughter as she grows, whatever other things she ends up doing.

So how DO I approach my scientific research?

Curiosity is important. I need to want to know the answers and be interested in exploring new ideas. Experiments rarely work the way you expect and a desire to follow the experiment where it takes you is essential to making progress in science. This is easy for babies – they are naturally incredibly curious. Encouraging this in my students is sometimes more challenging, but helps make the class more interesting and engaging for everyone involved.

I start my research by clearly defining my goal or the problem I would like to solve. In my lab, this usually involves using lasers to make a better, more accurate microscope for looking at fiber optic circuits (the optical wires used to send information along the internet so you can read this blog). In teaching, this means deciding what skills and information I want my students to have when they leave my class. In parenting, this can range from helping my daughter learn how to sit up or fall asleep on her own to figuring out why she is so fussy and always spits up after eating.

The next step, which is one that is often overlooked, is determining how I will measure my success – how will I know if I succeeded? This was one of the most difficult issues in my research since I was measuring a completely unknown object – how do I know if my measurements are accurate? How do I know that my students have learned the Physics and problem solving skills that I wanted them to learn and that they have not just blindly memorized some facts and answers to certain problems? My daughter sleeping better on her own seems like an obvious indicator that I was successful in that, but how do I know what things make my daughter a fussy eater when there are so many factors that may affect her behavior? Success may seem clear in those cases, but if I do not understand what caused the success, then I cannot be sure she will remain happy (and sleeping well).

Once I have a goal and a method of measurement, I still need to figure out how to achieve that goal. I start with what I already know and use that information to design a set of experiments to learn more about the problem so that I can come up with a solution. For examples, I can give my students a pretest to see what they already know and then try different types of teaching methods and see how each affect their performance. I can alter my diet (since I am breastfeeding) to see what foods in my diet make my daughter upset. In scientific experiments, this is the part I find the most fun – the troubleshooting. It’s a lot like detective work (which is why all those crime shows on television really focus on the cool science behind solving crimes). It can also be incredibly frustrating since most things you try do not work. And if you really want to solve a problem, you need to slowly, systematically try many different approaches.

This sounds like a good, rational approach to parenting, but it is easier said than done. The consequence of not finding a solution fast enough with my daughter is lack of sleep and a very unhappy, screaming baby. Using a more systematic, calm approach will still likely result in a solution faster, but it is hard to be calm and methodical when my baby is upset (and while I am so sleep deprived). I do try to approach each new challenge in teaching and parenting with a scientific mind when I am well rested enough to think of it!

I am looking forward to finding more time to read this book on Scientific Teaching – both to improve my teaching of Physics and also to help give me ideas on approaches with my daughter. Much of parenting is teaching, after all, and she still has a lot of exciting things to learn.