Read more in my article on LiveScience.com!
I’m reaching a point in my graduate career where I’ve realized I don’t know what I’m doing.
Now, some of you may have squinted your eyes in suspicion at that statement, especially my fellow graduate students. Really? Just now you’ve had this realization? You’re a graduate student! Of course you don’t know what you’re doing!
But it’s more than just scientific knowledge, or research knowledge. It’s more of an existential question. What, exactly, am I doing?
I go to the office. I sit in my office chair. I might check some code, I might look over some edits for my paper, I’ll probably spend more than an hour doing reading and taking notes on the high-level theory that will form the basis of my thesis. I’ll do this until my eyes glaze over. Then I will go home.
Slumps happen. Your research has stalled. Your paper is spinning its wheels in the deep muck of “is this even worth writing about?” Every line of the textbook you’re reading has three words you don’t know, and the definitions of each of those words each has three more words you don’t know, and the tree of your ignorance grows ever-more branches. You dread going to work.
The question, really, is how to pull yourself out of a “slump.” It’s incredibly difficult. It’s a lot easier (and more appealing) to just say “I will work from home today” and then lay on the couch reading the same page over and over.
It is said that the best way to combat existential malaise is to take action. That’s what has gotten me out of my most recent slump: I coded a thing, the thing made a plot, and now I have a new result to chew on while I make progress on my paper. I have ideas for new plots. I will make those tomorrow.
Write some code. Take some action. Avoid the couch–it’s a trap. And remember you can always talk to loved ones or colleagues about how you’re feeling. The reminder that you have people in your life who support you and want to see you succeed is valuable beyond measure.
Avalanches don’t just happen on mountains! Scientists use the concept of an “avalanche” to describe other phenomena that evolve in similar ways, such as forest fires, a stock market crash, or solar flares. In a recent paper released on arXiv, French physicists made the argument that knit fabrics also behave in this “avalanche” fashion. This makes them very useful for studying the properties of avalanche behavior, since a knit is much easier than a mountain to fit into a lab!
An important part of describing avalanches is the phrase “stick-slip.” Imagine you are trying to push a heavy box of antiques across the floor of your grandmother’s basement. You push it, but it is heavier than you expected, and it doesn’t move. As you push harder and harder, eventually the box slips, and you can now push it across the floor with less force than what was needed to make it move in the first place. The moment when the box stopped sticking and started slipping is called a stick-slip event. You could also describe the very beginning of an avalanche–the instant when the soil/snow/sand at the top of the mountain begins to slip–as a stick-slip event.
Knit fabrics are made of a network of threads; these physicists showed experimentally that stick-slip events happen at the intersections of these threads when the fabric is stretched. The threads can hold on to each other for a time, but eventually they slip; the first intersection to stretch causes the next intersection to stretch, and the knit network expands in an avalanche-like fashion. This is slightly unusual because avalanche behavior is not typically expected in things that are as neat and ordered as textile fabrics (think of how chaotic a landslide is!).
Hopefully this discovery helps improve our knowledge of avalanches, and systems that act like them!
Knits: an archetype of soft amorphous materials. Samuel Poincloux, Mokhtar Adda-Bedia, Frédéric Lechenault