The Craft of Experimental Physics

It’s been a long road, academically speaking, getting to where I am today. I began as a graduate student in September 2008, putting me just over the 6 year mark on the road to getting my PhD. The path has been fraught with difficulties, most frequently stemming from feelings of inadequacy due to an effect called the Impostor Syndrome, an affliction that is so common to graduate students, many institutions offer advice to their students.

Yesterday, I ran upon an article that staunched these feelings, only a week before my PhD defence (it couldn’t have come at a better time). An article, written in 1933 by Baron Blackett, entitled “The Craft of Experimental Physics” describes what I consider today to be a lost appreciation for hands-on experimentalism. In addition to the image above, let me quote from the first page of the article:

For the experimental physicist is a Jack-of-All-Trades, a versatile but amateur craftsman. He must blow glass and turn metal, though he could not earn his living as a glass-blower nor ever be classed as a skilled mechanic; he must carpenter, photograph, wire electric circuits and be a master of gadgets of all kinds; he may find invaluable a training as an engineer and can profit always by utilising his gifts as a mathematician. In such activities will he be engaged for three-quarters of his working day. During the rest, he must be a physicist, that is, he must cultivate an intimacy with the behaviour of the physical world. But in none of these activities, taken alone, need he be pre-eminent, certainly not as a craftsman, for he will seldom achieve more than an amateur’s skill; and not even in his knowledge of his own special field of physics need he, or indeed perhaps can he, surpass the knowledge of some theoretician. For a theoretical physicist has no long laboratory hours to keep him from study, and he must in general be credited with at least an equal physical intuition and certainly a greater mathematical skill. The experimental physicist must be enough of a theorist to know what experiments are worth doing and enough of a craftsman to be able to do them. He is only preeminent in being able to do both. (Emphasis added.)

Never, in my academic career, have I felt so vindicated in the path that I’ve chosen. Not only that, but pause for a second and just think of when this article was written. It was written during the adolescence of modern physics; before semiconductor transistors, radar, space-flight, nuclear power, before software and the internet. To hear someone speak such a truth that resonates so strongly today has breathed new confidence into me.

Many of you know already that I am preparing my next steps post-PhD. So it is that I proudly state, whatever the future may hold, I am an experimental physicist, which is what I’ve worked towards earning a PhD in.

Soon I knew the craft of experimental physics was beyond me – it was the sublime quality of patience – patience in accumulating data, patience with recalcitrant equipment – which I sadly lacked. -Abdus Salam, Nobel Laureate

A Wild Thesis Appears!

EDIT 2: I successfully defended my thesis on January 12th, and it has since been accepted by the University of Alberta.

EDIT 1: Thanks to everyone who participated! Proof-reading is now closed.

At a certain point you need to say “good-enough”, and although that’s not usually what you want to hear when you are talking about your own PhD thesis, that’s exactly what I’m going to say.

No, the thesis is not yet finished, but a complete draft is now available, and I’d like to ask for your help in proofreading it. So this is how it’s going to work:

  1. Download the most recent draft of the thesis by clicking this link: Lockwood-Thesis-v1-0.pdf (25.6 MB) (closed)
  2. If you have any suggestions, please submit them using this form:
    Lockwood Thesis Suggestions (closed)

The form is to keep things simple, and a bottleneck for people who might otherwise overload me. I’m imagining maybe one or two suggestions per person.

For people who have never read a scientific document before, might I suggest that you start on with Chapter 6 – Conclusion, and then come back around to the Introduction.

The Landscape of Optimism

I’m a PhD candidate hoping to graduate within the year, and as a result my radar is on full alert for what comes next. Unfortunately, the landscape for careers in academia looks bleak:

The pattern reaching back to 2001 is clear — fewer jobs, more unemployment, and more post-doc work — especially in the sciences. A post doc essentially translates into toiling as a low-paid lab hand (emphasis on low-paid as shown below. Once it was just a one or two year rite of passage where budding scientists honed their research skills. Now it can stretch on for half a decade . (The Atlantic)

Of course, the article that I’m linking to refers primarily to our American counterparts, but the story for Canadian PhDs is worse:

However, economic returns and employment situation of higher educated persons in Canada — as compared to U.S. and other OECD countries — are disturbing. PhDs, even after five to six more years of schooling, earn only 8 per cent more than Masters. In U.S., they earn 43 per cent more. In Canada, PhDs unemployment rate is even worse: 50 per cent more than Masters (6 per cent as compared to 4 per cent).

In U.S., their unemployment rate is only 1.9 per cent. Although U.S. has nine times higher population than Canada, it produces 14 times more PhDs. After adjusting the difference in population and number of doctoral graduates of the two countries, unemployment rate of PhDs in U.S. in Canadian terms should have been 8.4 per cent, not 1.9 per cent. Also, a government report shows that a good number of PhDs are driving taxies in Canada. (The Huffington Post)

The full Statistics Canada report from 2011 that this article is based off of is here: Expectations and Labour Market Outcomes of Doctoral Graduates from Canadian Universities.

So if the world of academia is shrinking, what options do graduates have? According to a recent article in the Globe and Mail:

Just one of four PhD graduates becomes a professor, which begs the question of how to capitalize on the talents of those not headed for academia.

One answer, many believe, is internships at the master’s, doctoral and postdoctoral level. Such programs give young scholars an early taste of working in industry and help Canadian companies boost research and development activities.

However, matching companies and researchers is a challenge. Canada lags the United States in the proportion of PhDs in industry, research shows, and newly-minted PhDs, with theoretical expertise, typically lack job-ready experience. (The Globe and Mail)

So great, maybe there will be some impetus to incentivize PhDs to take positions in industry? The National Science and Engineering Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship looks like the ideal vehicle to give recent PhDs the leg up they need to enter the industry, only NSERC has been cutting back their fellowship awards for 5 years:

I always knew that bad news was released on Fridays in the summer… but last Friday was pretty ridiculous.  NSERC has just announced that in order to improve its success rate (just clocked at 7.8% in the most recent competition) it will now reduce the number of times an individual can apply for a postdoctoral award from two to one.

…  now that your jaw is back in place,  let’s look at what really matters.  The absolute number of fellowships awarded by NSERC represents how many scholars it supports each year through its program, and no matter how many people are applying, this is the most important number.

Sadly, the last five years have seen NSERC’s funded fellowships drop dramatically (awards / applicants):

  • 250 / 1169 (2008)
  • 254 / 1220 (2009)
  • 286 / 1341 (2010)
  • 133 / 1431 (2011)
  • 98 / 1254 (2012)

This is unbelievable and it cannot be sugar coated with a letter about streamlining or complaints about increased applicants (just a 7% increase in applicants from 2008 to 2012).

The sad facts are that NSERC is awarding 66% fewer fellowships.  As you can imagine, this has had an effect on success rates, but NSERC’s solution is to try and reduce the number of applicants in an effort to bring up the rate so that they can rid themselves of their sub-10% success rates. (University Affairs)

What does this mean for you and me? It means that we need to explore the options that are off the beaten path, because the way that our professors wended their way to academia are almost all dried up.

Lytro gets an underwater housing

Recently, Eric took one, in a custom Nauticam housing with Light & Motion SOLA 2000 lights, with him on the Wetpixel Ultimate Indonesia expedition, and has just published the results. Light field cameras potentially represent a completely different approach to photography, in which the viewer has creative control, rather than the photographer only.

I’ve been eyeing the Lytro camera since its release in October 2011. The camera works on the principle that it captures the full light-field of a particular scene; meaning every point in the finished image can be brought into focus. The reason I think this underwater housing is so exciting is that underwater photography makes it very difficult to see what your capturing. With the Lytro, you take a picture, and focus when you’re back on dry land!

Make sure you click through to see some of Eric’s images.