Seeing Atoms

Paul M. Voyles, 12/7/2012

Doing scientific research can be difficult, monotonous, and discouraging.  At the professional level it pays well, but not as well as using similar technical skills as an intellectual property lawyer or a quantitative financial analyst.  So why do it?  This essay is my attempt to answer that question for myself.  I’ve posted it here, mostly for students considered a career in research.  These are the ideas and emotions that keep me going through the rough patches, so maybe they will help someone else, too.

One motivation to pursue a research career is freedom and novelty.  As I write this, I am 38 years old, and if I start counting from when I entered graduate school, I have been working as a researcher for 16 years.  Compared to some of my colleagues, that’s not very long, but it’s definitely long enough for me to get bored of doing the same thing.  But a research career isn’t one thing, it’s many things.  I’m particularly blessed as a US academic that I can pursue any idea that catches my fancy, as a long as I can convince someone to fund it.  And while my colleagues and I frequently complain about how difficult it is to obtain funding, we’re are immensely fortunate that the US government, through the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, and National Institutes of Health, will listen to any idea we come up with, and at least consider funding it.

As a result, researchers can reinvent themselves, over and over.  One of my colleagues, Y. Austin Chang, worked on lightweight metal alloys, and magnets, and semiconductor nanowires, and I’m sure many other things over a long career.  Another, Max Lagally, has reinvented himself three times.  He started working on surface science of atoms on metal surfaces, then moved into growth of strained semiconductor thin films, and is now working on semiconductor membranes only a few nanometers thick. I’ve worked in amorphous materials, crystal defects, experiments, and computation.  Whenever one thing gets dull, I can move to something else, then back again when I have new motivation or a new idea.  I think there are not so many jobs, let alone careers, that offer that kind of freedom for self-direction and continuous novelty over the long term.

Another motivation is discovery.  Creating new knowledge is a tremendous intellectual effort – devising experiments, executing them, analyzing the results, developing new theories.  But the feeling of understanding something new is unparalleled.  There is a sense of satisfaction and a job well done, but for me, there is also a larger feeling of appreciation of the beauty of the physical world, how it fits together, and how the parts move and interact.  It’s a bit of hubris, surely, but I think this is what Stephen Hawking meant when he wrote about “knowing the mind of God“.  More selfishly, when I discover something new, for a little while, I am the only person in the world who knows that thing.  It may be a very specific thing – I may in fact be the only person who cares about it – but I still enjoy the feeling of exclusive knowledge that comes with discovery.

Single atoms of Pt imaged in the STEM.

And finally, wonder.  I got started thinking about this essay after listening to an interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, and public advocate for and explicator of science.  The subject of the interview was wonder, and Tyson talked about deciding at age 11 to be an astrophysicist when he first noticed the awesome majesty and wonder of the night sky.

Tyson’s story resonated strongly with me. The most basic reason I get out of bed every morning and go to work is that when I do, I see atoms.  They are the basic building blocks of the physical world that we all interact with every day, and I can turn on my microscope, put in a sample, and see them in real space and in real time.  That’s fantastic!  It’s a “gee whiz” feeling that makes leaves me energized and excited by the world around me.  I feel 11 years old again and ready to get back to work.