Life as lived in the lab - tell me about physicists
April 7, 2011 11:51 AM   Subscribe

What do physicists do all day? What is the lab environment like? Minutiae welcome.

So I'm writing my novel, see, and because I am fascinated by the culture of academic research labs, there are some researchers in it. For the most part, my characters do the sort of research I understand and have experience with, they're the sort of people I know, etc etc. However, I'm messing around with a plot point that would require a little bit about physics labs.

I've looked at previous mefi questions for places to find information on the state of contemporary physics itself, but I just don't know anything about the daily life of the lab.

Examples of the info I'm looking for: In one Field With Which I Am Familiar, researchers are often sporty and fairly socially competent -- there's quite a lot of intra and inter-institution sports, beer-drinking, going down to the local frat-house bar, sport-sandal wearing and so on. Conferences are very hearty and beery. In another Field With Which I Am Also Familiar, the culture seems a bit different - people tend to be a bit weirder and more reserved, the life of the lab is less jolly, less rock music, etc. The conferences are less raucous, although as at every conference, there's plenty of drink. Field One skews apolitical, Field Two skews center-left. Both fields One and Two like those little plush microbe toys, but only Field One really likes the inflatable lab sharks.

I feel like I could plausibly describe an average Field One researcher and an oddball Field One researcher, the same for Field Two--what the typical undergrad work is in, what age the PhD candidates tend to be, what brought people into the field, etc etc. What's this like for physicists?

I'm also looking for descriptions of various average days in a physics lab--of course, this varies from lab to lab; all descriptions are helpful.
posted by Frowner to Science & Nature (15 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
What type of physics? I have a friend going for her PhD in particle physics and her lab is just a bunch of computers. They're getting data from the LHC, so they don't do any experiments where they are. I think the same would probably be true for astronomy/cosmology/astrophysics (the area she almost went into instead), with observations made elsewhere and results played with in the office.

As for other branches, well, I don't know anyone in them.
posted by Hactar at 12:22 PM on April 7, 2011

I'd be happy to describe what my experimental lab is like to you (memail me if you like), and the tone of the field generally (which is more like Field Two above) but it will vary dramatically by research group and university - which is actually a good thing in your case, because it means that whatever you make up will likely be true of somebody somewhere.
posted by you're a kitty! at 12:35 PM on April 7, 2011

The anthropology of science standard text is Beamtimes and Lifetimes, but it was published in 1992 and may be a little bit dated. Also it focuses on just two labs - the Stanford Linear Accellerator and KEK in Japan. You would probably be most interested in Chapters 3, 4, and 5 which describe the "lifecycle" of a physicist; their social organizations and activities; and how this social structure affects work.

It looks like there is an ongoing efforct to do similar research on the scientists who work at CERN.
posted by muddgirl at 12:42 PM on April 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

This depends so much on the type of physics. I now sort-of work in a large experimental collaboration (I say sort of because I'm the only one on my specific project, but the facility I work at employs several dozen scientists, engineers, machinists, riggers, ...) and the feel is very different from when I worked in a normal-size lab of a few students. Feel free to memail me for details.
posted by dorque at 12:43 PM on April 7, 2011

Also I think muddgirl and I may have taken the same anthro class (seriously) :) At the time I recall finding Beamtimes and Lifetimes bizarro, but now that I'm working at a similar facility, I recently started rereading it and am finding more truth in it than I recalled, though yeah, it's a bit dated.
posted by dorque at 12:49 PM on April 7, 2011

in the examples you give above, less beer, more seriousness, less inclined to share personal lives and details. No lab sharks. Yes little toys but probably not microbes because they're "not physics". Yes printouts of cartoons all over the walls, interspersed with periodic tables, machining drill bit charts, spectroscopy tables for whatever you're working with, postcards from when the postdoc went to a conference in Amsterdam (but chances are that the postdoc did not come back from Amsterdam telling stories about the trip, only about the conference). Yes to coffee, including shared terrible coffeepot with and without the "25c please" box, and the one guy who keeps the espresso machine at his desk, and the two guys who are reliably gone to the cafe between 10-10:30 and 3-3:30 every single day. No to the big fun culture, generally no music playing of any sort. Yes to the oddballs who sing Gilbert & Sullivan for fun in their spare time. Similarly, occasional folk-dancers, but no to any kind of genuine coordination or grad students clubbing without mega-self-consiousness. Yes to quiet happy hours that everybody knows about, and nobody disapproves of, but only a couple of people go to. People are friendly but not naturally sociable, so standard interactions are geared introvert-level, not extravert-level.

Rigid dress code of never ever ever wearing a suit. Jeans and Tshirts, witty sayings optional. For the upscale grad student, jeans and buttony shirt or polo OR cords/khakis and plain Tshirt. Non-jean plus non-T means there's something going on. Button shirts in question, especially among the over-40, are not the straight-shooting oxfords/suit shirts, etc. but on the more casual side, often madras plaids, stripes, textured weaves, etc. Black sneakers, loafers, skechers, rarely actual dress shoes even on a "dressup" day.

That's an average over one grad school, one national lab, and one industry lab, doing table-top experimental projects (in which you have a few pieces of apparatus in a room, each project worked on by 1-3 people, space shared by 1-6) and a little bit of beamline-level experiments (in which you have a building-sized apparatus maintained by ~50 people and used by many teams of 5-15 people for many different projects)

Agreed that physics labs vary wildly, and there's a wide range of what you can do in a fictional setting and still have it be "typical" for some subset of physicists.
posted by aimedwander at 1:10 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is all fantastic - please feel free to continue! Folks who kindly offered more info via memail, I would find that very helpful and will contact you.
posted by Frowner at 1:14 PM on April 7, 2011

A vignette, an afternoon encounter in one of my undergraduate lab rooms, many moons ago, as an illustration of the complex characters and interrelationships you might find at a university, sample size one:

One experimenter is cleaning the contacts on a device yet again and I am fairly sure that by now rust as an abstract entity no longer considers oxidizing the terminals an option. His cowboy hat and sandals do not jibe with the compulsive cleaning. I am still waiting for this program I have written in dusty-but-available TurboBasic to finish its output and the next program to suck that in data so the next piece of equipment can do something interesting and we can finally perform yet another measurement in a series of weeks of steadily refined measurements amidst our poorly-mated hunks of equipment. This ancient box is impeding serious work as our research, even as undergraduate students, is required to be publishable (and often is published) to pass the semester. Percolation theory stops for no-one but Intel.

Idle, the walls of our lab infested with wasp nests, I am gently catching the drifting, ominously-close wasps by their wings with a pair of tweezers and popping them into an empty half-height bottle of Mountain Dew purchased with precious scrounged change from the shuddering, ancient vending machine floors below, nearly entombed by obsolete and mysterious machines. I note that the breeze created by their wings prevents them from flying out of the hole at the bottle top. The other team in the lab has no liquid nitrogen to spare so the loathsome stings-with-wings will not have an easy death today. This also means that auto-firing, refreshingly cool squirt bottles cannot be constructed and ennui has set in.

One member of the other team makes a noise and announces "turnover." They have reached a milestone and, as such, the ritual must begin. My lab partner jabs one finger at me. I yank out my Hounds of Love cassette from the boombox and disconnect the alligator clips to the oscilloscope I was using to watch the pure sines of Kate Bush, that I might slam a queued Frankie Goes to Hollywood cassette into the gaping tray. I press play and we all immediately begin lip-syncing to "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" swaying around and hopping about between the benches.

One of my professors strides into the lab. He looks pointedly at me; I am grandly posed on top of a stool, fists at sternum level, as if I were doing a death metal song rather than a pop cover. I am holding my breath and, with a chill, wonder if 1) his daughters have mentioned anything to him about 2) the guy down the hall about to return to the lab, 3) me, 4) the LSD (sold by #2 to be ingested by #3 three hours prior to dancing with #1) after weighing his age and probable visual acuity against the proximity of my friend with sclera red enough to lure a bull. Holly Johnson sings, unfazed, L.A. is a great big freeway, put a hundred down and buy a car into the silence while another student is poised, using a expensive-even-with-depreciation piece of equipment as a faux microphone, mouth open, stock still.

I look at the stout, towering professor; he is wearing lederhosen, a short cape, and a Tyrolean hat. His walking stick is of impressive length. He looks like a grim, slightly patrician Tom Bombadil, ready to announce to the hobbits that they should go home and await the razing of the Shire. He nods tersely. "Carry on," he orders, then leaves, cape fluttering with his precise whirl. We dutifully rewind the tape and restart our routine, one kicking up her bare legs with just a hint of heat-defying gusto, right after which the computer says ding! to let us know to continue the next phase.

None of this was considered particularly unusual.

dreams turn into dust and blow away ...
posted by adipocere at 1:15 PM on April 7, 2011 [12 favorites]

I'll take a shot. Background: about 15 years in physics lab environments, mostly dealing with atoms and the lasers who love them. Station: the great postdoc holding pattern in the sky. Outlook: very happy with the present, equally worried about the future. Opinion on that Big Bang Theory show: don't like it at all.

Memail any specific questions. I'm in a certain mood after being told that I might have to shut everything down if Washington can't get their act together.

What kind of people do this stuff?
All kinds. Seriously. I doubt there's much variance at all between the idiosyncrasies present in a typical lab vs. any other slice of life (ok, maybe excepting bankers). Sure, there's something of an academic liberal bias, the ominous gender gap, and a lot of goofiness that goes along with the boot camp atmosphere of the first few years of grad school. But I've worked around creationists, smokers, teetotalers, cultists, climate-change deniers, homophobes, homosexuals, atheists both pleasant and not, undergrads with families of their own, alcoholics, charity champs, and self-proclaimed "bootleggers" (whatever that means). Goals range the map as well: I've met future teachers, lawyers, professors, perpetual lab monkeys (a.k.a. the 12–18 year Ph.D. plan), bankers, engineers, policy analysts, trust-fund malcontents, basket cases, and CIA employees.

For every stereotypical introverted geek interested in nerd-dom and arguing about Star Wars, there's two or three intense rock climbers, skiers, musicians, cyclists, paragliders, travelers, and runners. From my observations, hobbies apparently range over stand-up comedy, distilling, the banjo, film, bodybuilding, motorcycles, pet rescue, Habitats for Humanity, guns, yoga, sailing, board game competitions. In short, coming from deep in the dork forest myself, I was very surprised by the breadth of interests I encountered and can only hope I grew a little thanks to all these peers.

What do you do all day?
I've spent half a day looking for a bolt. I've spent days reading textbooks that turned out to be useless to me. Maybe 1 of 30 days, too few!, is spent in the machine shop, making electronics panels, or mounts for some odd optic. If you have teaching duty, that's 10 hours of grading, office hours, lecturing, or lab baby-sitting. Taking data? Writing papers? Conferences? That's what you do when all the plates are spinning on their respective sticks, or part of the backstage work between the plate-spinning show. These moments are rare and ephemeral unless you are the principle investigator of a large group who has long since delegated the knob turning. If all a junior experimentalist does is take real data or run simulations all day, their job is too easy, and their project is either a cake walk, or an accelerator funded to the tune of billions. Theorists respectfully get a break on the simulation comment... only because they are simulating the QCD background, spacetime itself, or other fantastic barely understood nonsense, often using gaming graphics hardware.

No, most of our time is spent dealing with the latest unknown variable, bad assumption, or changing condition or goal, and getting the plates all back in the air and spinning. We're never given the time to train decently in computer programming, but we've got to do lots of that with both modern and ancient languages preferred only by the lab's PI. We've never really been trained as electrical engineers, but we've got to do lots of that too: fix the 30kW laser power supply, build one of the quietest signal amplifiers ever made, repurpose a microwave oven's transformer for some high voltage repair work (fires and electrocuted undergraduates are frowned upon). I've got a "Wall of Shame" where I hang all the busted bits I've pulled out of equipment. Once I was waist deep into a cabinet-sized power supply, and my legs twitched violently as my screwdriver touched a capacitor lead. The professor behind me muttered "yep, watch the terminal behind that one, it really packs a high voltage". I heard this man once hooked a grounded oscilloscope to a floating -320V power bus. Apparently the scope probe vaporized. The scope was fine.

Mechanical engineering training? Plumbing? HVAC? Purchasing requests and paperwork? You do all of it, so so poorly, merely as a prerequisite to anything resembling real data.
Today I've got 10 times too much nitrogen in my vacuum system, yet 100 times less oxygen than would imply a simple leak, and I don't know what I'm going to do about it. This is a show-stopper. The only thing I changed was the substitution of some stainless steel with glass. I can think of no reason why that gas should be there. Guess what I will be studying this week and next despite being clueless about where to start? Not exactly anything to write home about ("Dear Mom; Today, there was 5 nTorr of nitrogen in the vacuum system. And you'll never guess how little oxygen...") but this latest disaster feels so normal.
You mean it's all minutia?!
Finally, with all this noise going on in the foreground, most scientists all privately tinker with 5-10 big ideas we keep on the back burner and might land us a job someday. Some of these are: "quit science and open up a pub". Some of these are dead-on-arrival experiments, but we haven't realized it yet. Some wouldn't be interesting even to most physicists. Some were done satisfactorily in 1960 using terminology that we haven't searched for yet in the literature. Some would only work if a given technology got 10 times better, or cheaper. Some would work only if one understood xyz much much better. We read science journals, or preprints online, and marvel at the great research being done at other labs without us, or at poor research that seems to get funded and published anyway. Ever present are the doom mantras: "your funding runs out in two years", or "publish or perish", or "why did they cancel their job search?", or "did this author get his units mixed up or is it just me, again?"
posted by fatllama at 2:49 PM on April 7, 2011 [10 favorites]

Definitely depends. My postdoc boyfriend is a high energy particle theorist, and his "lab" is just a collection of offices filled with computers and a lot of brilliantly dorky people in jeans, t-shirts, and the occasional scraggly beard. And these aren't particularly fancy computers, unless you consider Macs to be fancy. There are also lots of well-used chalkboards around, but his laptop and messy piles of physics papers are the most noticeable things in his office. Maybe I should get him a plant?

Boyfriend and Lappy are basically a single cyborg entity at this point, and Lappy (and a decent internet connection) is important, because without ready access to Mathematica and the arXiv, he wouldn't get anything done. As far as I can tell, nobody in his field ever reads journals, and that's because they're all constantly reading the latest papers the second they're published on the arXiv.

Possibly because of the transient nature of grad students and postdocs, most of the offices are similarly bland, rarely featuring more than a few books or the odd posted xkcd comic or geeky toy. I can't really speak for the professors' offices, having only glanced them in passing, but I hope they have a bit more personality to them.

Beer doesn't seem to figure too heavily into the department culture, but a fair number of people appear to worship at the espresso machine. This is unsurprising to me, as most physicists I know are hardcore nightowls. It's not terribly unusual for him to be emailing back and forth with his collaborators at 3 AM. Because of the internet, he doesn't actually have to spend a huge amount of time in his office, and he, like every other theorist I know, actually spends a lot of time working at home. The department doesn't really come to life until after 10, but folks in his group try to at least get there in time for their lunchtime pilgrimage to the cafeteria. Aside from going to talks, that's their primary social interaction during the day.

Even with people around, the department is generally pretty quiet, or at least it has been all the times I've been there. There are lots of "interaction spaces" with chairs and chalkboards, and people frequently get together to talk shop, and it's all very laid back, but it's definitely not a party scene. If adipocere pulled those antics in my boyfriend's "lab", there would probably be some awkward silences.

People are nice; I wouldn't call them especially friendly, but it's mostly your run-of-the-mill geek reserve. I find physicists of any stripe are usually much better one on one or in small groups. There are definitely a few oddballs, but most people you wouldn't bat an eye at, although as a whole, you'd definitely feel like the group swayed to the young-ish (mostly 20's, some early 30's), dorky, male side of things, and if you were listening closely, you'd probably encounter quite a few different accents.

In my experience, theorists tend to be somewhat neurotic, or at least have a lot of nervous energy. It displays in a lot of different ways, but it means they tend to be kind of intense about their interests, whatever they are, but there's also usually a constant sense of low-level paranoia. You can especially find grad students and postdocs freaking out towards the end of the year, when everyone's applying for jobs. There's some understandable anxiety when you realize you're pushing thirty and have never had a "real" job and may never get one in the field you're in.

My boyfriend was on the younger side when he got his PhD at 25, but it wasn't particularly unusual, and three years later, we have friends who started in his year who still haven't finished, and that's not particularly unusual either. I'd guess 26 is the sweet spot for theorists completing their PhD.

I'm starting to ramble, so I'll wrap this up (feel free to memail if you have other questions), but one last thing to note, at least among the physicists I know, is that they do a hell of a lot of traveling for talks, workshops, conferences, or even just as part of a visitor's program. For several months now, having my boyfriend home for more than two weeks in a row has been the exception rather than the norm, and I know plenty of other physicists who have a similarly transient lifestyle, whether they like it or not. Before I started dating him, my image of a theoretical physicist was of a dude locked in an office surrounded by equations, not jetting off to Tokyo and Florence every other week.
posted by Diagonalize at 3:30 PM on April 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Someone in my department refuses to watch the Big Bang Theory because it's too much like the truth. Says it all, really.
posted by edd at 5:10 PM on April 7, 2011

The tenured professor who teaches one class and otherwise relaxes in his office all day reading newspapers and magazines and surfing the web. If you enter his office to ask a question, he'll answer it, but he's lost his curiosity for physics and enthusiasm for physics experiments. There are no rewards dangling in front of him to experiment, no sticks to beat him if he doesn't. This is a quirky kind of physicist, and not many are in his position, but he might add color to your story. Feel free to add other quirks, such as facial ticks, phobias about even numbers of things, hat fetish, etc.
posted by exphysicist345 at 5:39 PM on April 7, 2011

Physics culture varies pretty widely between research groups, between institutions, and with the age and composition of the sample. In general, though, physics in the US skews much more toward your Field 2 than Field 1.

Of course these are gross generalizations, and I have no doubt many people in the field would disagree with them. But, if I may pontificate and extrapolate wildly from anecdote -

Physics undergrads are noticeably arrogant and competitive, but grad students and post-docs are often exactly the opposite. Collaboration and general good will toward others in the department are refreshing, and there's less back-stabbing and underhanded politicking than in any other workplace I've heard about. Tenure track folk tend to be somewhere in between.

In general, physicists at national labs (NASA, DOE, NIST - though, there are subtle cultural differences among institutions) are a bit more outwardly professional and, for lack of a better phrase, engineer-like. They wear pants and shirts with buttons, proposals are completed days rather than minutes before the deadline, working hours are long but not crazy.

Academic institutions (and national labs which are cosy with them) are a little more ragged. Holey T-shirts and all-nighters are common and schedules are generally chaotic and deadline driven. Work-life separation is largely nonexistent, except when rigidly imposed by spouses. You're as likely to find someone in the lab on a Sunday evening hard at work as you are to find them using the student machine shop to repair their bike on a Tuesday afternoon. Nobody ever tries to "look busy" at work - the goal is always either to do something useful, or to have fun, with no particular pattern to which bits get done where or when.

The average physicist in the US is male, white, straight, and quite privileged. Their parents went to college, and usually at least one has an advanced degree in a technical field. (There are plenty of exceptions, and more all the time, which is fantastic. But they're definitely exceptions.) They're a somewhat left of center politically, though by no means activists, and usually not at all interested in local politics. (Think NPR, not Mother Jones.) They're socially liberal, though their personal lives tend to be pretty conventional. They believe that organized religion is silly, but don't see the point in making a big deal about it.

Nearly everyone drinks socially, but rarely to excess. In the Midwest, department and group happy hours are significant social events; on the coasts they exist, but only in a marginal sense. Pot is common, and nobody would be offended seeing it at a party, but other drugs only come up in jokes, not in practice. Open refusal to participate in sports is common, as is rather intense athleticism, though usually in the geekier, non-team sports: bicycling and rock climbing are huge, and skiing, Frisbee, strength training, and extreme endurance sports are not unusual. Juggling is big compared to the world at large, but small compared to math departments.

When it comes to conversation, there are no taboos. If you tell a party full of physicists that Hitler was a master at civil planning, they'll argue with you fiercely, and may consider you an idiot when you're not convinced by their arguments, but they won't ever question whether or not it's a viable topic for debate. In general, this is fantastic. (I constantly find myself failing to adequately appreciate taboos when interacting with non-physicists.) But, it also means that the few genuinely sexist, racist, homophobic people in a department feel free to express themselves without reservation.

There are significant numbers of stereotypical autistic-spectrum types for whom social interactions are tough, but most are just a bit on the introverted side of normal. Small-talk tends to fall flat among people who don't know each other. Long term relationships and early marriages seem to be more common than among my other friends. (Who may also be a pretty skewed sample.) Quirkiness tends to be celebrated, and people take pride in being weirdos when the opportunity arises, though usually in ways that are compatible with paying the water bill on time and getting As in school. (Think mohawk, not freegan.)

In experimental labs, lab culture tends to be very informal and scattered. Everyone eats and drinks in lab, unless they're at a wet chemical bench or other place where it's genuinely a bad idea. Active work spaces are always messy, with tools everywhere. Drawers are unlabeled, or misleadingly labeled. Cables cross every space. Chairs are scrounged from the dumpster and held together by c-clamps, not because the PIs are cheap, but because nobody could be bothered to order a new chair or to properly fix the old one. In general, broken things are repaired with exactly enough effort to make them work, not to make them aesthetically pleasing. But, people take real pride in an elegant instrument, and will happily geek out over a well designed tool.

Offices are undecorated, except for random useful things tacked to walls. Inflatable sharks (or, in this case, inflatable space shuttles, trade show cube toys with thin film deposition system vendors' names, and slinky) are welcome, but nobody would go out of their way to acquire them. If they're present, you can bet they were a gift, and they'll be sitting on a pile of papers and books on a shelf somewhere and nobody will actually do anything with them.

As far as average days, it really varies a lot among sub-disciplines. Whiteboards, supercomputers, and soldering irons are common companions, depending on the group. Even among experimentalists, you'll find one person who spends all day in a cleanroom holding tweezers and pouring liquids, and someone else who spends the whole day working on software for a data analysis pipeline. (Often it's the same person at different stages of their career. Sometimes it's the same person on different days of the week.)

In general, pick any engineering task you can think of and you'll find a physicist doing it somewhere on a campus. Add a few seminars, a weekly colloquium, and a few telephone meetings, and you've got a plausible day.
posted by eotvos at 8:23 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

The sub-field I work in can interchangably be called "Quantum device physics", "Low temperature physics" or "Nanophysics". I think this lab captures the essence of a physics research group quite well, but I don't have time to write an essay right now. You are most welcome to memail if there are special aspects that you wonder about though.
posted by springload at 12:42 AM on April 8, 2011

It might be fun to incorporate something about how many physicists seem to be perfectly happy to answer questions but lack the energy to write you a free essay
posted by Blasdelb at 6:45 PM on April 8, 2011

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