The rage of research
I realized recently that not everyone experiences research emotions the same way that I do, so I decided to write up my typical ‘research emotion journey’. If you experience similarly strong emotions when doing research, I’d love to hear about them! Could even do a followup blog post summarizing the findings.
There are two key emotions that drive my research habits: wonder, and pure unadulterated rage
It’s funny, because I’m normally a pretty chill person. I don’t get upset about things on a daily basis. But when it comes to research, a lot of my initial exploratory behavior is driven by a deep internal dissatisfaction with a question at hand. It’s extraordinarily frustrating.
I’ll separate it into a few stages:
Stage 1: the question hooks in the mind
Most research rabbit holes I go down start out with a seemingly innocuous question. I’ll just kind of feel I need to know something. For physiology, one question was ‘how do tissues work?’. For physics, the innocuous question was ‘what is entropy?’. I never learn. Honestly, I just assume the answer will be in some book (the really satisfying answer never is) and do a first wikipedia search to get something satisfying. I’ll read a sentence like ‘Entropy expresses the number Ω of different configurations that a system defined by macroscopic variables could assume’.
And then, the rage will set in.
Stage 2: pure, adulterated rage
Something about explanations like the above - a sentence so obviously incomprehensible given no other context - sets me off on a complete emotional tangent. But why????? my brain will scream. Everything will get blocked out. I can’t click another thing or read anything else until I understand what this is actually saying. What does a state mean, how do you know here are a finite number of them, what actually is a macroscopic variable, how does all of this fit in to literally anything else.
There are then two paths:
- Shut down and constrain this area of intellectual space to one that I will forever just internally snarl at without having done the work to unearth it (unsatisfying, but necessary if there’s something else important going on)
- Start the wormhole
Stage 3: what actually is the thing????
A lot of stage 3 can be best characterized by reading everything I possibly can about a subject and internally screaming ‘but what actually is the thing???’ after every sentence. For example, a state - but what actually is the thing, entropy came originally from a heat engine - but what actually is a heat engine, entropy is actually heat over temperature - but what in Newton’s name is heat actually????? What is temperature???? - and following this rabbit hole all the way down. It’s like a branching tree of indignation that just cannot stop growing (and always gets stuck somewhere when I get to the limit of what we know), but is just so infuriated that each definition doesn’t resolve itself.
For entropy, the tree came to an abrupt halt when I asked Scott Aaronson, who was an obviously knowledgeable MIT expert on quantum information theory what entropy actually was and why it wasn’t actually just a subjective thing, how people could claim it was this objective principle when according to everything I understood it really wasn’t he said ultimately that yes if there is one universal wavefunction of which all worlds are branches then if you could know that wavefunction you would know deterministically how everything would turn out and so the entropy would actually be 0. But we’re all presumably entangled with one branch and so that’s why subjectively there is entropy associated with the future. (Note: I may have mis understood what Scott was saying, but the point is that it was the first reasonable explanation I’d heard).
That shut me up because it didn’t necessarily answer the question permanently, but it sounded reasonable. And I felt like I’d gotten to the brink of what we knew.
Then there’s a gush of unceasing wonder when I realize I’ve now loaded a full new programming language into my brain and can fluidly manipulate concepts and compute things in a new realm of intellectual space. But that comes after, and is seemingly inexhaustible river of questions and just emotion that to me characterizes falling in love with a question but almost being driven mad because of it.
Lastly, here are a few heuristics I’ve started to use when in the rage stage, that seemingly help quickly get to the final explanation:
- Historical research: How did things get to be the way they are (many satisfying conceptual frameworks for me come from seeing the historical or temporal past of some thing). For example, understanding tissue structure through the lens of development, or anatomy through comparative anatomy. It also usually nicely resolves seemingly weird things where you wonder ‘why’ and then realize the answer is ‘someone did a thing a while ago that was useful then but makes no sense now’.
- Trying to visualize things: Especially in biology, my brain explodes when I see a conceptual diagram with shapes explaining how a pathway works. I have to understand things in terms of concentrations, numbers, where things are in the cells, how many would be likely to be bumping into each other. I’m still getting better at this, but a fluid quantitative understanding is required before my brain can move on.
- Watching a bunch of random adjacent talks: The good people in the field already know what I need to know. I just need to watch enough obscure talks that the perfect explanation seeps through.
Anyway, that’s my typical rage-filled journey through research. Would be curious to hear about yours!