We asked scientists involved in high magnetic field research to fess up: Tell us something related to science that you simply don’t comprehend, and wish you did.
Turns out, there are vast swaths of science that never make it into their neural networks. Not because they’re dim, and not because they think it’s boring. Rather, as science demands ever-greater specialization from its practitioners, there is less and less bandwidth for keeping up with trends outside one’s discipline.
So, what stumps scientists? Read on to find out.
In the last few months of my Ph.D. in chemistry, I had to perform toxicity testing that required microscope work. I quickly realized how clueless I was around microscopes, and was embarrassed when I found myself having to ask for some help from the high school volunteer. Sharing this experience with my lab group, I learned that I was not the only chemist in our group who wanted to avoid microscopes at all costs!
— Jenna Luek, Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of Environmental Engineering, University of New Hampshire
Dark energy. I would say 70 percent of what I know about it is stuff I've watched on TV, like Discovery Channel, the Science Channel. I'm embarrassed that I don't know it that much. It seems like it's a popular topic that everyone knows about or wants to ask me about because I'm a scientist. I kind of regurgitate what I've been told.
— Shermane Benjamin, Postdoctoral Associate, Physics, National MagLab
"One of the things that has always confused me a little bit is airplane engines, and I should know about them because I’m a mechanical engineer. But they've always confused me a little bit. And maybe transmissions and gear boxes in cars. I know how gear ratios work. I just don't know how the gear lever moves the gears and how it shifts from one place to another. I don't understand how they place them — in a stick shift, how it goes from first to second to so on. I know the math behind it. I just don't understand the actual geometry of it."
— Abhinandan Antony, Staff Research Associate, Columbia University
I'm horrible with math. I make mistakes. There you go — it's very embarrassing. I always ask my students to double check.
— Sara Haravifard, William M. Fairbank Assistant Professor of Physics and Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science, Duke University
I know almost nothing about organic chemistry. I know benzene rings and then that’s it. That’s as far as my organic chemistry goes.
— Daniel Rhodes, Postdoctoral Researcher, The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Columbia University
Why it is so hard for individual particles to work together and why they eventually decide to do so.
— Nat Fortune, Professor of Physics, Smith College
How do the actual energy transfers happen in a cell? Some of it is known, with the ATP-ADP cycle, but all the details are pretty hefty stuff.
— Theo Siegrist, Professor, Chemical & Biomedical Engineering, FAMU-FSU College of Engineering
Synthetic chemistry: I know nothing about it. My background is in quantum physics, so I’ve never had to know synthetic chemistry. But now I need to know more of it. But I couldn't tell you how to make a molecule to save myself.
— Dane McCamey, Associate Professor, School of Physics, The University of New South Wales
When I decided to go into science, I decided to go into physics. And I jokingly told my friends that I chose the easy science to go into, because physics is pretty close to math. It’s clean and orderly. It’s got answers. My sister is going into nursing, and I want to stay far way from complex systems like the human body. I don’t even know how to approach the human body. It is so amazingly complex that, coming at it from a physics point of view, it is so uncomfortable for me to even try and conceive of something as messy as a human body.
— Jonathan Billings, Scientific Research Specialist, National MagLab
I don't understand the transition from basic science to the mass production of something. I feel like we take it for granted. We don't really think of where [a product] comes from or all the work that it takes. We understand the basic physics, and we just kind of stop there most of the time. Then we see the final product and think it's kind of trivial. But it's not.
— Emilio Codecido, Graduate Student, Department of Physics, Ohio State University
First thing that comes into my mind: how airplanes fly. Aerodynamics, yes. But really: How do we stay in the air? A big mystery to me. Then, black holes. Yes, very dense matter that even consumes light. But, wait, what? Again, physics at its best, and I should study it a bit more to understand.
— Nur Gueneli, Researcher, Research School of Earth Sciences, College of Physical & Mathematical Sciences, Australian National University
Some things about the universe stump Agosta, who teaches an introduction to astronomy course but insists he’s not an expert.
"Some things are not that hard to understand but are really hard to wrap your brain around,” said Agosta. "Like when you look away from the Earth, you look millions of light years away. And of course, because of the speed of light, you’re also looking into the past. So, especially with the Hubble telescope, we can see things that are 10 billion light years away. But that means the things we're looking at are 10 billion years old. That's at the farthest distances. And yet 10 billion years ago, the universe was much smaller. So this idea that we're looking, in any direction, really, really far away when the universe was smaller: That just doesn't make any sense. And I can't explain that to my students."
— Chuck Agosta, Professor of Physics, Clark University
I always struggle a lot with the difference between a semiconductor and a superconductor. I understand the difference between a superconducting magnet and a resistive magnet, but a lot of times I have to Google that and then I'm, like, 'OK, now I get it.' Like, right now, I'd have to go Google it, because it's just not something I've ever committed to long-term memory.
— Amy McKenna, Research Faculty II, Ion Cyclotron Resonance Facility, National MagLab
My theory is not very good. So if a student does some theory, I can go through and follow it, but I couldn’t usually do it from scratch. I'd like to, but I know that's not what I can do in this life.
— Chris Kay, Chair of Physical Chemistry and Didactics of Chemistry, Department of Chemistry, University of Saarland, and Professor of EPR Spectroscopy, London Centre for Nanotechnology, University College London
The problem with chemistry is that we are somewhere in between. We are, at a certain level, interested in molecules, atoms — and we obviously love electrons. But when we go a little bit deeper down into the way the world is built around us, then we will find these particles. In this area of small, small particles — bosons, quarks — this is something that for me is a complete mystery. I get the principle why these particles are needed, what they more or less do. But this is such a new field for me that I don't feel comfortable.
Then the other way is to go above. And there is the problem of cosmology, of the whole universe — dark energy, dark matter, super massive black holes. It's very fascinating. I love to read popular science magazines and popular articles about this stuff, because the scientific ones are so far out of my scope that I can't comprehend them.
— Maciej Witwicki, Chemist, Wroclaw University