As I keep saying, I started my PhD recently at the University of Surrey. It’s cool, I love it. Not only is the subject interesting but the community of PhD students is awesome. There’s even a Postgraduate Society here – they do socials! I absolutely love the socials that they run – not only because there’s lots of good food and drink but because I get to meet new and clever people. It’s fun, but there’s one thing I dread more than anything. Invariably, someone asks me this;
“So what do you study?”
This isn’t because I don’t do any work, and it’s certainly not because I don’t know what I’m talking about it (I have a sneaking suspicion I’m ahead of the curve there) but because what I’m doing is really, REALLY difficult to explain to a scientist. That’s because the actual hard work in my project is closer to computer science and mathematics than it is to a physical science. I don’t study anything that could be really described as Physics per se, not currently.
Why should explaining that be so difficult, then? Well, I’m not entirely sure but I have some theories. Firstly, since most of the work is done either in 1) computer coding or 2) abstract conceptualizing it’s very hard to relate it to something physical. You can’t very easily explain what I do by analogy. Secondly, I really work with a branch of statistics which isn’t used very much except in specialized applications. Most people look at me blankly when I mention “Bayesian Statistics”, despite the fact that it’s a standard part of most Physics undergraduate courses. It’s just not used very often because “regular” statistics is still more widespread. Between those two influencing factors, it gets very difficult to actually talk about what I do.
I find this very frustrating, because one of my favorite things to do is to talk about science. (Seriously, I’m that much of a nerd.) The other day I was trying to explain to one of my friends (who is a theorist studying nuclear matter in neutron stars!) what I do. A two-hour discussion ensued, at the end of which he managed to convince himself that the basic problem I have to solve exists.
And when even someone very intelligent and more experienced than I am can take two hours just to understand the basic problem, how the hell am I supposed to explain what I do to someone in a matter of a couple of sentences?
In the end, I generally have to satisfy the question with the phrase “I work on an algorithm that one day might help us understand how to build a quantum computer in Silicon.” While technically true (and quite interesting), it’s not a very satisfying way of describing what I actually do.
One day I might figure out how to describe what I’m doing. Of course, by then I expect to not be doing it any more…