Week 2: Let's Run the Experiment

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Sunday, June 8, 2014


Caleb L. Heath

View from the American Center for Physics."Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing." -- Wernher von Braun

The key difference between an expert and a novice is not knowledge or ability: it is process.

As most of my readers have a physics background, I will ask you to reach back into your past, to high school or your freshmen physics courses, and try to remember how you used to solve problems.

Are you shuddering in horror as you recall your early missteps? I bet they were a mess, weren’t they? Or perhaps your experiences were different than mine. You may have emerged into the world from the brow of Newton like Minerva from Jupiter, fully endowed with knowledge of the workings of the universe. If you did, please don’t tell me. My nature is not generous enough to easily conceal envy.

Back to the nature of expertise, and I’ll be brief. The novice tries to solve problems, but the expert tries to understand them.

What does this have to do with anything? It has to do with the quote from the beginning of this entry. I am trying to become an expert, so I’ve spent this week trying to understand my problem. This is ill-defined work. It provokes a certain amount of anxiety and dissatisfaction, especially if you have been socialized in some maladaptive habits by experience. “What are you doing? Get to work already!” harps the inner critic.

Well, next week is a time for trial-and-error. I’m no expert yet. Time to get in some fumbling and flailing.

Also as a show of hands, when was the last time you used a 3½ inch floppy disk? I’ve enjoyed a few adventures exhuming fossilized files this week, excavating with a boot disk and a command line. (Thanks Erwin!)

This kind of archaeology is becoming more necessary every day. Media and systems become obsolete. Programs can no longer be run on current hardware. Instead of curating a writer’s collection of correspondence, we’re data-mining their e-mails. Death now bequeaths two estates, the one physical and the other digital.

Old School computing.Thanks to fellow intern Ashley, I also had the opportunity to attend an exhibition of ExploraVision winners this week. The idea behind this contest is that student teams take an existing technology, research it, and then extrapolate its development twenty years down the line. Then they wrap it all up in reports, abstracts, video presentations, and a website.

ExploraVision is a simulation of research and development, and quite different from a normal science fair or competition. No apparatus or process is actually produced. Entries are more like a elaborate thought experiments in science and engineering. To the viewer, the result is inspirational; to the contestants, it is aspirational.

Caleb L. Heath