Monday, July 9, 2012

Hot summer affair (with science)

The previous entry’s todo and nottodo lists have been very helpful to me so far this summer. I’m a to-do-list achiever. So far this summer I have been deeply involved in trying to develop a formalism for dealing with phase boundaries at equilibrium, and am having a great time doing so.

Geosciences are a bit different from physics and chemistry in that our problems are generally inverse problems, not forward problems. In all cases, the process of science uses observations to test models of how nature works. If you are a scientist who does not quite fit into this category, like a string theorist, “god-bless” as they say in my family parlance. In physics & chemistry, generally the scientist plans and runs the experiments. In geoscience, planetary science and astronomy, the Earth and planets and stars run the experiment for us, and we have to make good observations, and figure out what the results mean. And nature does not keep an organized lab notebook, but instead leaves hints lying around.

In petrology—the study of rocks—or more generally the study of Earth & planetary materials—one of the hints is how elements and isotopes partition between two phases at equilibrium—often a melt and a solid. We have lots of data both from the Earth, and from the lab. But it’s not straightforward. In both environments—lab and natural-world—it is hard to achieve and ascertain equilibrium. So one of my questions is—can we predict how element and isotope partitioning behave away from equilibrium? 

We have a lot of data—from the Earth and from experiments. And my research group has collected a huge data set over the past ~8 years or so on metal stable isotope partitioning between fluid and solid during electroplating, and there are certain aspects of the data that appear not to be predictable by the simple kinetic theories. Yes I can go to more complicated theories, but they provide too many free variables for my scientific taste. I hate fitting 8 variables to a data set. I can fit anything that way! Is there a simpler framework to understand element and isotope partitioning?

I have been working on this question in a low-key way for years, and in an accelerated manner the last several weeks. I’ll write more about the development of the theory—I still have lots to do, and lots of predictions to make, and lots of predictions to test. But now I want to write about how much fun I’m having.

I’m having so much fun doing this! I’m learning so much! I wake in the morning thinking about my beloved interfaces at equilibrium, often with a new idea, a new approach. And I’ve been spending 5-6 hours at a time many days working through the algebra and the implications of the calculations. Drawing pictures of interfaces, and finding ways to explain them to myself and others. I am thinking of how to incorporate some of the ideas I’m working on into my class this fall. And starting to outline the paper.

Sometimes science is a slog, and I just continue pushing forward, thankful for the occasional delicious small bits that come across my way.  Right now though, it’s a full-blown romantic affair complete with happy dreams, elevated mood, and anticipatory excitement about the object of my affection.

1 comment:

  1. Cool! It's fun to read about someone actually enjoying the work part of science, not just the results. Good for you!