What I did last year

April 30, 2009

So I handed in my Diplom thesis last week, five days ahead of schedule! It was actually due today. This means that exactly twelve months have gone by since I joined the Institut für Kern- und Teilchenphysik (IKTP) to do elementary particle research. Because it has been such an amazing year, I can’t help but reminisce a little.

The Diplom thesis marks the end of a five year university course in physics. Unlike other majors, physicists get a whole year for it because that’s how long it typically takes to get acquainted with a topic, do meaningful research and write it all down. For me it was the best year out of the five and a half I’ve spent in university. That’s because the IKTP is an awesome place to work at. Mostly however I’m glad they managed to hire Dominik Stöckinger as a professor for particle theory. Because that meant I didn’t have to become an experimentalist :). Dominik has been a great mentor and is probably partially responsible for my decision to carry on with research after my degree.

Looking at the log of my revision control system, here’s how I’ve mostly spent my time:

  • Studying Quantum Field Theory and Supersymmetry: 3 months
  • Learning Mathematica and related software: 1 month
  • Preparing and teaching the Quantum Field Theory tutorial: 2 months
  • Writing applications for PhD programmes and scholarships: 1 month
  • Vacation (in total): 1 month
  • Doing the actual research: 2 months
  • Visiting the DPG Spring Conference: 1 week
  • Writing down the thesis: 6 weeks
  • Printing, binding, handing in thesis and partying: 1 week

Here are some mostly unrelated thoughts and insights from the past year:

  • It feels like I’ve learned more Physics in this one year than I have in the four years before. This might not actually be true. All I know is I have gained an enormous amount of insights. Actually being able to understand what the professors are talking about is gives me lots of satisfaction. Being able to ask semi-smart questions even more.
  • The reason why I think I learned so much is the environment. I realized that I don’t get much from lectures and even tutorials aren’t that effective for me. Sharing an office with other Diplom and PhD students, however, as well as the numerous discussions with professors were much more insightful. Teaching a tutorial has also helped a lot because I was forced to work out every detail myself. But since I co-taught it with someone else, I also got to discuss the problems verbally a lot.
  • Mathematica is a great language. It borrows a lot from other functional and pattern-matching languages such as Lisp or Haskell. The notebook interface is a bit hard to get used to at first, especially as a software developer. In the end it’s quite alright, I guess, even though sometimes “using it still feels like unprotected sex with an HIV positive, nobel prize winning hooker that looks like Meatloaf“.
  • Even though they do a lot of software development, many scientists are lousy developers. Commenting is typically unheard of (unless it’s for commenting out code, then it’s used way too often) and only well-organized collaborations seem to use version control and enforce coding standards. Most code is written so that they understand it (maybe), but rarely written so that other people can work with it (which will eventually happen once you have students work for or with you, for instance).

5 Responses to “What I did last year”

  1. Congrats my friend ! And let me know if you wanna test any turtle in Shanghai once again 🙂

  2. Raphael Says:

    Herzlichen Glueckwunsch!

    Does “carry on with research” mean continue to do particle physics?


  3. philikon Says:

    Raphael: Yep. I’ll be doing LHC physics in my PhD research (cf https://philikon.wordpress.com/2009/01/22/lhc-here-i-come/)

  4. Wim Boucquaert Says:

    Hi Philipp,

    I,m sure it’ll be a great thesis and wish you all the best with your favorite particles.

    Prospecto! (took me quite brain search to find that name again)

  5. Peter Steinbach Says:

    dear philipp,

    after discovering your blog I tend to answer to an old thread anyhow. May I correct your statement that physicists are lousy developers by putting it as “lousy trained developers”. you know yourself best, that programming or even sw development is not part of the curriculum at the university. it’s all voluntary. without big surprise, no student ever does take part in a training course at a computer science faculty. at the IKTP, we try to do something about that, but senior scientists’ and students’ prejudice work against us, e.g. “why do I need to write unit tests? that is even more code to the stuff I have already!!” or even better “I never used an IDE in my PhD and PostDoc fortran time, so why would our students need to do that?”.
    I’d be anxious to know what philosophy of training technical skills is followed at Mozilla?

    good luck and I’ll follow your blog now more closely to get to know the life out there better.


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