A Life Update (Using PHDComics)

So, I last posted quite some time ago. At the time, my dissertation was merely an outline:

And, at the time of my last post, I had had this conversation about a year before:

And… Hillary had also made this point:

But because of the voodoo guilt spell they entrance you with upon entering graduate school, we still didn’t see each other as often as we would have liked. Thank goodness for modern technology.

Since this didn’t happen last winter:

…it was time to get cracking on the whole writing thing.

So naturally, the next thing I did was marry the love of my life and leave on a honeymoon:

And then I was back, as a newly married man. Full of motivation to move up Boston to be with Hillary.

…and the questioning intensified:

So I tried some of this:

…and then wrote, and rewrote everything multiple times.

I experienced every combination of these:

(Except one… can you guess which?)

Did one of these:

And then I got my dissertation to the committee:

At ~250 pages… you can imagine I killed many trees during the editing process:

I then successfully defended! (With many friends and colleagues from both in and out of graduate school present.)


I then celebrated with my friends and family that weekend:

Tailgating Football!

And then this sequence of events happened almost verbatim:

(The only difference was my margins were fine… but apparently one of my supervisors was technically my “co-supervisor,” requiring a new round of committee member signatures.)

And now… I’m training the new folks and wrapping up some old projects. Soon I’ll be on my way to Boston.

…anyone up there hiring?

Anatomy of a 14-Hour Day in the Lab

The “Ambitious” Phase:




The “Everything is Going to Plan” Phase:




The “Minor Setback” Phase:




The “Major Setback” Phase:




The “Why the Hell Does My Professor Want Me to Do This Now?” Phase:




The “Oh, For Fuck’s Sake” Phase:




The “Why Is Everything Breaking? Phase:




The “Burger & Beer Dinner Break” Phase:




The “Holy Shit! It’s 10pm and I’m Not Done Yet” Phase:




The “Finished!” Phase:




The “Why The Hell Am I Writing a Blog Post Instead of Sleeping?” Phase:




The “Heading to Bed” Phase:

A Good Way to End a Bad Week

The streets of Boston were empty today

A lot of emotions today. I was torn between wanting and needing to watch as every detail unfolded, and not wanting to give the suspects the satisfaction of my attention.

Today was a relief and a victory: the suspects are no longer at large, and one of them is alive. And alive means we may finally get some answers.

The thing is: I’m not really expecting answers. Sure, the BPD and FBI did an amazing job to catch this guy alive… but what could he possibly say that would give us any sort of satisfaction?

To ascribe motivation to a mad man, is almost as if to say that hurricanes destroy homes for a premeditated reason. Mad men are just that: mad. Logic and reason elude them. To ascribe to them a “reasonable” motive, is to miss the point: that there is none.

Of course, that makes no sense to us. It’s hard to imagine someone doing something so grave without having a reason for doing so. But it’s hard for us to imagine because we are rational. Trying to describe irrationality within the framework of logic is folly.

Obviously, that’s an oversimplification. Currently, it’s too soon to tell what was going on with these guys. They may have had a real, and horrible motive. They may not be mad men: they may just be purely evil men. But I just hope that in the frenzied aftermath we don’t want so badly for them to have a motive that we inadvertently invent one.

In times of uncertainty, it’s more comforting to think of events like this through the lens of reason. If they did this for a reason, then we should be able to change something… exert some sort of control. We can potentially change something, and create a different set of circumstances thereby preventing the next incident. If they’re just… mad… and these acts are basically random, then we can’t control our own futures.

That’s a highly discomforting thought in an already highly discomforting time. But it doesn’t make that thought untrue. To find out, we’ll have to see what the suspect says in the weeks ahead.

Earlier this week I wrote the following:

It’s moments like these when we really search for some sort of meaning. It has to mean something… right?

And today as we celebrate our relief, I’ll just say that the place we should be looking for meaning should not lie with the suspects’ motive: that gives them too much power over us. We should not be looking for meaning by crafting panicked policy responses promising to prevent the next horrific attack (but ultimately falling short because you cannot legislate away madness). We should not be looking for meaning in any place other than in each other.

Because this week people came together. We came together.

Immediately after the bombing, we saw local heroes like Carlos Arrendondo (pictured above) respond to the scene with an intensity of effort and selflessness that is hard to imagine. We saw the doctors, nurses and paramedics in Boston coordinate a massive and unprecedented relief effort that lead to the survival of every single person wounded in the initial blast. This week, we saw a massive outpouring of MIT student love for their fallen campus police officer. This week, blood donation centers around Austin (and I know this is true of other communities as well) could not take nearly as many people as were offering to help the victims of the West, Texas accident. This week we stood as one.

The weeks to come may or may not give us the bombers’ motive. They may or may not give us a “reason” why this all happened.

But even if they do not, we came together and lifted each other up during this time of heartache. And I take meaning in that. And that is something worth celebrating.


I’ve had trouble making sense of much today. It’s been a daze and a blur.

I first heard about the bombs at the Boston Marathon via a text from my fiancée, Hillary. I spent the rest of the afternoon confirming that everyone I knew in the area was ok… a task that kept me busy, but with no time to process what was happening/had happened. (Thankfully, everyone I’ve gotten a hold of is ok.)


Once I got home, I was able to have a brief conversation with my roommate and great friend, Indy. Just talking out loud made me realize how little I’d really processed.

It’s moments like these when we really search for some sort of meaning. It has to mean something… right? But there’s a reason heinous crimes are frequently described as “senseless.”

Living in a free society, you intellectually accept that there are certain risks associated with that… intellectually you understand that there’s a negligible chance of some fluke accident, or some crazy incident seems like an acceptable risk. But when you confront what that means in real terms… when your fiancée was only a ten minute walk from a bomb site while on her way to that site… you want it to mean something, even though you know it doesn’t. (Frankly, this post is still just me striving in vain to pull some meaning from the ether.)

When I was finally able to talk to Hillary this evening, I was calling for her: in case she really needed to talk. She was there after all. What I found is that I was the one who needed to talk. I needed to process why I was still in a daze. Still so rattled.

Obviously, I was rattled by Hillary’s proximity to danger. But I’m not sure that accounts for how long I stayed upset: in learning the news, I simultaneously learned she was safe (it was her text that informed me). Was this all just a mix of anxiety and relief from the closeness of the call? I don’t think so.

What it was, as I found myself articulating to Hillary, was a combination of her physical proximity to the bombs on the one hand with my emotional proximity to those hit by those bombs on the other. These runners… they are my people.

Laura, an old friend of mine who I met way back in middle school, put it well on Facebook: “A marathon is a celebration of courage, athleticism, hard work, and mostly unity. What a tragedy to see this spirit taken away by senseless violence. My heart hurts for all involved.”

Unity. These are my people.

In that conversation with Hillary, I realized that marathoners–runners–had become my people. And like many of them I had come to share a common goal: a BQ.

I’ve only run one marathon, but as with so many of us… one is all it takes to set the hook. And like so many marathoners, and aspiring-marathoners… a BQ (Boston Qualifier for those not yet initiated), is the most lofty and challenging of goals.

These are my people. And this was an attack on my people. On all of my people: Americans, Loved Ones, Friends, and Runners (from every corner of the globe: something like 90+ countries were represented). And that is why it hurts.

There are still no answers. And there will never be satisfying answers, even when we find out the details of “Who?” and “Why?” There are people, my people, who came to Boston to achieve a lifelong goal, who may never be able run again. What is there to make of that?

This is from an article pointed to by my friend Devan:

Like a scar across someone’s face, the bombing will now be a part of the Boston Marathon, but also like a scar, we have to remember it’s only a part. If this bombing will always be a part of the Boston Marathon, then so is Kathrine Switzer. I want to tell the story of Kathrine Switzer because it’s about remembering the Boston Marathon as something more than the scene of a national tragedy.

Through 1966, women weren’t allowed to run the grueling 26-mile race. But in 1967, a woman by the name of Kathrine Switzer registered as K.V. Switzer and, dressed in loose fitting sweats, took to the course. Five miles into the race, one of the marathon directors actually jumped off a truck to forcibly remove Switzer from the course, yelling: “Get the hell out of my race!” But the men running with her fought him off. For them, Kathrine Switzer had every right to be there. For them, the Boston Marathon wasnʼt about exclusion or proving male supremacy—pitting boys against girls. It was about people running a race. Somehow Kathrine Switzer kept her pace as this mayhem occurred all around her. As she said, “I could feel my anger dissipating as the miles went by—you can’t run and stay mad!” […]

In 1967, Boston Marathon gave us all a glimpse of the possible. Today we saw not of the world we’d aspire to live in, but the one we actually inhabit. Instead of the triumph of the individual amidst the powerful throngs and inspiration of the collective, we have tragedy, disarray, panic, and fear. Like a scar, it now marks us: the loss of security among the mass. But like a scar, we may need to wear it proudly. We will run next year because the alternative is too awful to contemplate.

It’s a scar. But its our scar. There is no meaning in this senseless act, but there is meaning in us… in our community. These are our people.

Tonight, let’s rally around our loved ones. Tomorrow, I’ll see you on the road at 6am. And I’ll do my damnedest to see you in Boston running this race next Spring. Or the next.

See you on the road

“If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.” – Kathrine Switzer

Antisocial Social Media

I met Kerstin Nordstrom at the APS March Meeting at the Tweetup. This is her look at the use of social media in the physics world.

Figure One

Science is online now, right? And everyone’s on Twitter now, right? Not so fast. The people at the frontiers of science are not necessarily at the frontiers of communication technology.

by Kerstin Nordstrom


I still feel like a noob when it comes to Twitter. I like it in principle, and I am following and am followed by some really interesting people with awesome ideas and stories to share. But even with my paltry network, I’m overwhelmed by the deluge.  My primary job is not science writing, it’s academic science. So in the midst of experiments, meetings, and classes I can easily go days or weeks without looking at it. But I’m trying, and getting better.

In March, I attended the aptly-named March Meeting, the largest physics conference in the world. With the meeting boasting over 8,000 attendees, the convention center in Baltimore was bursting at the seams. The…

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