Tuesday, October 26, 2010

An Abused Lab Notebook's Quest for Recognition

This is my submission for my good friend Anthony's Second Annual Fall Writing Challenge. The assignment is to discuss an item that has a particular significance to me.

If you ever asked me what my worst favorite experience in researching physics was, I would either tell you about the 2 months I spent figuring out how to polish 1cm Silicon chips (This was like climbing up a mile-long ladder over and over again only to be pushed off of it as soon as I got to the top) or the entire summer I spent researching chemicals (This was like doing a survey on religion in a country where I didn't know a single word in their language). I would argue that the only way I made it through those experiences relatively scar-free was because of my lab notebook, that poor old thing.

You should really read my lab notebook. It's the closest you can come to experiencing what I experienced. It's full of all kinds of polishing procedures, pictures of scratches on chips, microscope pictures of pristine SOI wafers immediately followed by the statement, Dang It! It Broke! I designed several procedures for polishing these chips and it was the most frustrating thing ever because I would polish for an hour or two and then the chip would break. I'd unclamp the chip and it would come out in 3 pieces, leaving it completely useless.

The notebook got me through this though. I would get so frustrated that I just needed to sit back and write in my lab notebook. Frustration gets in the way of my thinking all the time. The only way for me to relieve the frustration and collect my thoughts is to write out everything I'm thinking in my lab notebook and slowly figure out where I should go next.

I'm a slow thinker, so I need a method of recording my thoughts that goes as slow as my brain. My brain is like a VW Vanagon. It's slower than walking, but gets the job done and is incredibly useful given enough time. But if you want to get full enjoyment out of your Vanagon, you can't pile it full of junk. It's nice to enjoy the open space inside. In the same way it's nice to have somewhere to store my junk outside of my brain.

I get every bit of worth out of that notebook though. I scribble on every single page, front and back. Every frustrating or confusing thought that goes through my head ends up in that notebook. I kind of feel sorry for it. I basically just use it as storage. It's my shed where I keep stuff that doesn't fit in my brain. Have you ever had a shed or a garage that's just piled full of junk, each thing having a 1 in a million chance of being useful? That's my lab notebook, only the chances of them being useful are a bit higher than most of the junk in our garage in Alaska.

I have anger issues. A lot of people don't realize I get angry much, but it really comes out in two places-When an experiment goes wrong or when I play dodgeball. But holy cow, dodgeball's fun! In dodgeball I relieve my anger by throwing a ball at someone's face, which is exactly why I love the game. Nobody's going to get mad at me for just pelting someone at 80mph (I probably can't actually throw that fast). Sadly, experimental physics doesn't work like dodgeball, except in particle physics. Definition of Particle Physics: Hit stuff as hard as you can and hope something comes out the other side...Then make up a crazy name for it like WIMP. I would probably get in trouble if I played darts with our very pointy tweezers. Things also would not go well if I used our diffusion pump to make a vacuum cannon for the relief of my frustrations. Since these things would be considered "unacceptable" in most areas of experimental physics, I have to resort to using my lab notebook.

If the notebook had feelings, I might feel bad for how I abuse my relationship with it. My only interaction with the notebook is to spout out boring, and likely useless, information. I'll sometimes write mild cuss words on it's pages and immediately scratch them out, keeping intact my reputation for having a clean mouth. I refuse to use a pencil, so every boring detail is stained in ink. All I do is abuse my notebook. I never treat it to Johnsonville Brats and Alaskan Amber or taken it out on a date. I've never thrown a birthday party for it (their birthdays are on 9/28/08 and 10/16/09). I'm preparing my desk for a new notebook, but no baby shower is necessary. I plan on abusing my new one the day it comes home to my teal desk in Meyer Hall 475. I'll probably take a sharp, blue pen and claim every page of it like a dog claims every snow berm in his neighborhood.

It's an odd, abusive relationship that I have with my lab notebook, but I couldn't live without it. It persistently tolerates my abusive behavior, which makes me love it all the more.

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