Luck in grad school

I am continuing my blogging series on why grad school sucks.  This series has only had one entry so far, in which I talk about how bad physics talks are, and how this worsens impostor syndrome.  Today I will talk about how scientific success is based on luck.

If you have ever read any popularizations of science, you’ve likely heard that many scientific discoveries are made by serendipity.  This makes sense, because if a discovery isn’t a big surprise, then it’s not much of a discovery, is it?

We have one of these stories in the field of superconductivity too.  Kamerlingh Onnes is credited with the discovery of superconductivity in 1911.  But that’s not what his work was really about.  His real accomplishment was being the first person to liquefy helium.  He just tried cooling a bunch of things, and that’s how superconductivity was discovered.  That’s serendipity!  Kinda?

The thing is, serendipitous discoveries might make for a fun story, but it’s garbage to actually live through.  If you go to grad school, will you hit upon something truly interesting?  Or will you just produce a bunch of unremarkable studies that nobody cares about?  Nobody knows!  But your career success depends on it!

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Things that bug me: gluten

As I sift through the ruins of organized skepticism, I recall something that always bugged me.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes a bunch of chronic gastrointestinal problems.  The treatment to celiac disease is to switch to a completely gluten-free diet.  However, people with celiac are not by themselves the cause of the many gluten-free products sold in stores.  Many people buy those because they believe they have a different condition, Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS).  They believe that when they go on a low-gluten or gluten-free diet, they have fewer gastrointestinal symptoms (e.g. they feel less bloated).  I say “believe”, because there is no consensus that NCGS exists.

The standard skeptic’s line on NCGS is that there is no evidence that it exists, and there is no reason for people to go on gluten-free diets unless they think they have celiac disease.  One study that has been used in support of this position, is a paper from 2013, which says in the title “No effects of gluten in patients with self-reported non-celiac gluten sensitivity“.

The interesting thing about this paper is that it says that people who report NCGS do experience a significant reduction in symptoms when they change their diet.  However, the important change in their diet is not the elimination of gluten, but the elimination of another category of chemicals, known as FODMAPs.  FODMAPs are generally present in the same grains that include gluten, so it’s easy to get them confused without having a study designed specifically to separate them.  In other words, it is possible that people who believe they have NCGS are correct about having symptoms that improve with a change in diet, but incorrect about the source of those symptoms.

I recall that back in 2013, skeptics were saying, “This is another confirmation of what we’ve been saying all along: NCGS doesn’t exist.”  And I recall reading the news reports and thinking, wait.  This means we were wrong.  People who thought they had NCGS were correct to change their diets.  We were wrong.  Why weren’t skeptics acknowledging that they had been wrong?

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Why are physics talks so bad?

As I get closer to the end of my PhD, I wanted to talk about why grad school sucks so much. For my first complaint, let’s talk about physics talks. I’m not referring to popular stuff like Stephen Hawking’s TED Talk or whatever. I’m referring to talks given by physicists to other physicists in their field.

By design, a physics talk starts out with a broadly accessible introduction, and dives into technical details that only two people in the audience understand. This is followed by a Q&A where those two people ask (apparently) extremely intelligent questions, and everyone else silently feels stupid as they listen to arguments over arcane details.

When I started out my PhD, approximately 0% of physics talks made sense. I thought that maybe when I got further into my PhD I would understand much more. Nope! Now, maybe 10% of talks make sense. And even that high rate comes from knowing when to avoid going to a talk in the first place.

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