Down the Rabbit Hole
Laboratory work is often like seafaring adventures, at the edges of what we know and driven by what we may find. The environment may be hostile or unexpectedly tranquil, the tides ever-changing and the destination just over the horizon. But the most important feature the two things share is that the success of the quest almost singularly decides if it would ever be told.
A lot of the research done through PhD projects is organized into tasks spread over the week, the absolute absurd is sometimes kept aside for the Friday afternoon. And there is a pop-culture-ish romanticism in academia attached to such wild science because sometimes when these “side-missions” succeed, new ground is broken in the most unexpected ways.
Last summer, when the labs were no longer buzzing with activity and supervision was minimal, I had a quick peek into one such investigation, hoping it would be useful for my project in the long run. It wasn’t particularly wild in terms of the science, but it was the more-than-usual DIY aspect of it which got me interested (and it involved lasers!). I naively thought to myself, “super-quick study, a few samples, a few days, nice little paper if it all works out”.
Within a couple of weeks, tons of data started to flood my computer and soon we realized that we had stumbled upon something interesting. And as it happens, the word “interesting” just about positively describes obscure yet potentially useful observations and is often a sufficient incentive to justify the time and effort put into some future experiments, even though it remains a complete non-word in otherwise day-to-day life (as proclaimed by Viggo Mortensen in 'Captain Fantastic').
That feeling of mild accomplishment was reinforced over and over, by colleagues, supervisors, at meetings, at conferences, etc. It seemed like we were on to something that was novel. But a few months ago, when I made an attempt at summarizing those results, it struck me that it had been a year of such experiments and some, but not perfect, clarity about the subject at hand. We were still on to something, but not quite there. The rabbit hole I had stepped into had led to another one, and then another, and so on, each crevice more intriguing than the last, with a few answers but more questions, and none getting us any closer to the destination. The course had changed again, and again.
Looking up from the depths of this network of rabbit holes, some discovered, some of my own making, I wonder what’s next. Perhaps oddly enough, I still find it a compelling route to pursue because the observations have still been interesting, and the coast may just be over the horizon. But I am slowly starting to realize that just interesting may not be a good enough motivation to demand - eventually the voyager must return to be able to tell the story.