Thursday, August 02, 2012

I don't know why I'm blogging this

I gave a work presentation recently. It was well received and applauded. I was happy. A lot of work was shown investigating a stunning new finding. The finding is beautiful, the results I showed were consistent and the experiments were tight. But, a certain sadness and annoyance persists past the sprinkle of glory.
The annoyance comes from having been told exclude data that does not fit in the picture that is currently taking shape, because it is not fully interpretable. Significant, high resolution data that at the moment was put in the backup slides, because the error bars were too large. In addition, I was asked to remove details to show a simple trend: take away data points to make a graph look linear, almost like adding a trendline. Further, I was told to remove data in which no obvious pattern emerges... because there was too much detail.
It has to be made crystal clear that no unethical manipulation of data occurred. It was an attempt to make the findings easier to follow as I discuss in a bit.
I'm told it is ok to do these things "to tell a good story". Telling a good story... I can see that is important. In a scientific presentation one is trying to convey newly generated information and nascent concepts to an unprimed audience. However informed one is about a system, new information needs to flow logically for it to be absorbed and assimilated by any audience. In essence, it has to make a nice story. I will say not everyone is equipped with all conceptual tools, information and sadly sometimes accumen to grasp new findings and their implications (This presentation was meant for peers studying fruitflies and worms at the University). However, I feel facts that represent the system in its entirety should not be sanitized to fit a story, or one picks the ending and plot to a story that can "flow logically for it to be absorbed and assimilated". The idea not to dumb things down, but to make it more approachable. And that is a remarkable balancing act. That's good story telling. But, we don't write the story. Nature has it scripted out. Science is an attempt at reading it. Nature is cluttered and we need to deal with that fact. It should be our job to make sense of 
Having said this, I am a little conflicted after sleeping over these thoughts. It is true: "Subtle is the lord but not malicious". We are only human and subtleties can be distracting. The distraction can lead an audience away from the findings that corroborate other data. Or, heaven forbid, raise questions that no one knows the answers to, and yet, specifically make the presenter look not in control of their experimental design and data.
Putting away experiments that weakly support your findings  but leave other avenues open, is good showmanship but also being pretentious. We have to pretend as though we know everything about everything, and we knew what the data would be. That is how a lot of papers and grant proposals read anyway. The other facet is, that cocky self assurance (along with an interesting finding and coherent presentation) puts a speaker on higher ground. We are human and desire appreciation from our peers and of course, funding :). 
And this is where sadness comes in. Some researchers stoop to sales pitches. Because if people buy your product, oops.. idea, that translates to more citations, more reccomendation letters/ students, more funding and personal aggrandizement. A lot of us are not above that. But should this attitude extend to extended labmeetings?
It comes down to how honest researchers are to themselves. If you are looking for the truth about nature, it might not fit the current definition of beauty and intellectual elegance. It is what it is. Its splendid and shabby confusion deserves to be shown.
Then again, I haven't resolved this for myself yet.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Dream Series-2
Whether it was the three mugs of coffee and and heavy lunch before the siesta, an odd sleeping position or wonky mattress I don't know. This afternoon I had the oddest dream, bordering on psychedelia.
I was on a bus with my parents. This was no ordinary bus. We were the only ones on it. It was like a big wide room with bright, off-white hidden lighting like a corporate board room. The seats had the same colour of the light.  They looked firm, but felt like cushion air. That's right, this dream incorporated the sense of touch. The seats were partitioned such that each person was half an arms length away, and pointed in the direction we were driving. Papa said something about a conference he was taking Amma and me to. I looked up ahead. This bus was moving on a strange landscape. I could only see flatness all the way to the horizon in front of us. We were gliding along on a two lane highway, the bus taking up both lanes and nothing moved in sight, except that stripes on the road that monotonously slid beneath us. Around the road there were vast skies and land the colour of white sands on a beach. But it was featureless, like someone had smoothened out such an expanse of sand, even the texture of sand itself. That made it hard to say if we were zooming on this highway or going really slowly. There was nothing to compare the length of the stripes to and that didn't help.
I glanced to my right. Suddenly there was a window from the ceiling to the floor that appeared and I could see beyond it. We arrived at wire fenced compound. The fence extended along, and at a right angle to, the road as far as one could see. The posts were solid steel cylinders and the wires a platinum white. I could see a largish spread out building in the background. The building's structure and colour were in harmorny with the blue skies and white "land".
I gazed at the entry of this structure and was transported to its entrance, just by looking at it. I walked down a corridor of immense length and a lot of light. There was a door to the right somewhere in here and as I opened it, I heard Amma call. She was inside and already cooking. I put my stuff in a room that I somehow knew to be mine in the adjoining room. Papa was talking but I didn't see him anywhere. It was if his consciousness was there but not his body. He was talking about how we'd go to the market to get groceries this evening after we had rested. This thought was SO sharply contrasted what I saw from the window.
The building or whatever it was, was flying. I could see thin clouds fly by and city like settlements beneath.
And then at a whim, I felt like running.
We were flying in a...
I'm sorry I've forgotten the rest. More when I remember :)
It's been a bumpy ride, Science. But this ain't over yet. You just made my hair stand on end... again.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

In Conversation

Me: "We're cool. I'm not keeping accounts."

Person B: "You're a good man."

Me smugly: "I know!"

Person B: "I take it back."

Me: "I still know."