I've been doing experimental physics for about three years. I started during my sophomore year in college, went straight to graduate school, and continued here (albeit not quite immediately). There are people out there who have been doing this for a lot longer than I have, but I've gained a few insights, by working with said people, and through my own experiences in the lab. I thought I'd try to share a few of these, to help illuminate the past few days I blogged about.
Something Always Goes Wrong
It's the nature of experimental science. Something always goes wrong. It might be your equipment, it might be your sample, hell, it might be something personal. But something will go wrong. Wednesday was a prime example. Not only did I get soaked by rain and temporarily lose my bike lock, but it took us 9 hours to really start taking data due to equipment problems. I think this is endemic in what we're doing. We're trying to investigate something that no one has ever done (at least not quite exactly what we're doing). This means that we're usually pushing the bounds of our equipment and setup. Not just that, but most of the equipment is exceedingly complex, giving it many more places it can break down.
It's An Emotional Roller Coaster
Sometimes nothing works. At all. You try and try and you just can't make it work. Then sometimes everything is going well. You're getting data, and not just that, but the data looks good. Whether it's confirming or destroying your expectations, you're finding out something new about the world. It's exciting. You find something interesting and start chasing it. However, you have to be careful. Often the result is not what you think you're seeing. It's a false signal from your equipment, or attributable to the background material doing something strange. Or you've destroyed the sample, and that's why it's not doing what you expect. You go up and down quite a bit.
Part of it is the long hours. But really, 16 hour days are not *that* bad. Sleeping 6.5-7 hours. I can usually do that, no problem. So what's different when it's research? You have to be thinking all the time. For 16 hours. In general, you can't just push the button and wait. You need to look at the data while it comes in, to determine what data to take next. Combine that with the emotional up and down . . . even though you're not necessarily physically exhausted, you're mentally worn out.
You Get More Questions Than Answers
My undergraduate advisor would always say that when you're doing research you generate three questions for every question you answer. That's more or less true. It is very rare to go out and answer all the questions you have. It is even more rare to not get more questions. There's always more to learn. In many ways, that's great, though a little frustrating. If we ran out of questions, we'd probably run out of a job. But there's always another twist that you didn't expect nature to have, something else surprising you. That's why we do it. There's no finality in research. We can't get all the answers, ever.
A lot of our time isn't data taking, but making/setting up our equipment, analyzing data, and such things. Still, I hope that this series of posts has given you a taste of what we scientists may do when we're taking data.