The Wisdom of Perl: Balancing the Emotional Research Budget

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Scientists seldom talk about the emotional upheavals associated with their work, but according to Dr. Martin Perl, the 1995 Nobel Laureate in physics, such human concerns “pervade much of experimental physics.” In a recent talk sponsored by Penn’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, Perl, a professor at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, drew from his forty years of research experience in offering encouragement and advice to physics students.

“Experimental science is a craft in the way that mechanics is a craft and carpentry is a craft,” he said. “Beyond that, it also is an art … that has to be acquired over the years and cannot be taught, but can be learned by observation.”

Perl, who won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the tau lepton — a much heavier version of the electron — described some typical sources of anxiety for scientists whose experiments often stretch out for months. They include such abstruse concerns as: “Getting the machine going. Looking at the data. Is the data good? Is the data useful?” It’s the same affliction shared by mountain climbers and explorers, he said. “They go out and have a bad time [and] stumble back into camp, saying, ‘I’m never going out again, that’s it.’ But in fact they do soon start again.”

To carry out a successful experiment, he argued, “You must be obsessed. It’s got to pervade your mind. You have to dream about it and wake up in the morning and say, ‘Oh my God, I shouldn’t be using aluminum. I should be using copper.'” But at some point, if an experiment continues to fail, obsession becomes counterproductive, and it’s time to give up and go on. “That takes a certain humility,” Perl said, noting that while the ego may be bruised, the scientific cause won’t be lost forever. It may simply be a matter of the technology needing to catch up to the concept: “In twenty or thirty years, some young man or young woman, if it’s worth doing, will do it.”

Perl grew up in the thirties, when popular science magazines were filled with pictures of fanciful “flying machines” — but not an inkling of the truly significant developments that would come later in the century, such as the computer. “That taught me something very interesting about how difficult it is to predict the future,” he said. Narrowly following current scientific theory can be a waste of time, Perl argued, recalling some of the “dumb” experiments he did as a young researcher simply because they were the current trend in physics: “We are so eager as a community to make progress that we rush ahead whether or not we have a strong experimental basis for it.” Perl also encouraged senior researchers to lie a little when dealing with funding agencies, which typically dole out money to the “highest energy” projects at the expense of smaller ones. He compared the competition for research funds to Mom-and-Pop stores struggling to survive in a town full of K-marts and Wal-Marts: “It is almost your duty to be dishonest — to see that your younger people have some money and time to do other things.”

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