Anti-Matter: Lessons for life

Anti-Matter: Lessons for life

I learned quite a few things during my first summer at Brookhaven National Laboratory, although I didn’t realize them all until much later.

1) Marketing – it’s all in a name.  Positronium is just another name for two positrons that very briefly come together. But to get the needed funding and support for studying positronium, scientists were always quick to point out that positronium was really no different than any other atom, except perhaps that it didn’t live as long as the others: positronium was the neglected atom no one had ever heard about.  Compare something exotic to something commonplace, and it gives people the right perspective.

2) Prototypes sell.  I didn’t want to wind magnets; I wanted to use computers to automate our laboratories. But I somehow intrinsically felt and knew the best way to convince my managers would be to “shock and awe” them with a prototype of what they could get, if only they used my skills in the right way.  I’ve used this technique over a dozen times during my life as an IT Consultant, sometimes helping win some big deals that have kept dozens of people employed.

3) Sheer audacity sells.  My prototype didn’t just work – it overwhelmed my stakeholders’ senses, and I got what I wanted: the move from rote work to creative work.  I saw this again five years later, in a funding proposal that my then-advisor Prof. Peter Flynn gave to the U.S. Department of Energy.  Until Pete came along, scientists were growing crystals in big machines (called MBE machines) the size of rooms. Pete’s clever idea was to have many different scientists unite to tie many such MBE-machines together into a massive monster-MBE-machine the size of a football field.  I was in the room and I saw firsthand the astonished look on the DOE funding team when Pete showed the sketches, as well as their eagerness to fund his idea.

Now, in reality almost no researchers used that monster-capability that this monster-machine offered – each of them preferred to operate their own machines alone, not together.  But to be fair and honest: the real benefit was in the daily collaboration and interaction between the scientists in the center. The vast scientific output from all those individual machines (dozens of Ph.D.’s granted, probably over a thousand scientific publications and dozens of patents and high-value scientific prizes, including two prizes I won) would never have been possible to achieve otherwise, since no agency would have funded such a large collection of standalone machines – and without all of us scientists working side-by-side, solving problems and exchanging ideas, these research breakthroughs would have never been made.  I believe Pete really knew this and believed in this “collaboration power”, even though he never used it as his primary selling argument; it was never his intention to hoodwink anyone.

4) Advisors are good, mentors are better. During my time at Brookhaven I never knew what motivated one of the world’s top scientists to work with an eager but unexperienced student, me.  But I’m glad he did.  Over the years, I learned almost every important lesson about being an experimental researcher from him. (And I hope to tell one or two great stories about scientific management that I learned from my mentor in Germany, Helmut Dosch.) Today, although I’m not one of the world’s top anythings, nevertheless I take great pride in being able to help the younger and enthusiastic people under me – and I count my success by the number of people I have promoted to manager or senior architect.  But the key is enthusiasm: the enthusiastic bird gets the worm.

5) Many teams are more fun than a single team.  Working in my capacity as the “anti-matter laboratory automation expert” I was not focussed on a single experiment in a single laboratory: I was involved with using PCs to automate many experiments in many laboratories.  Since then, of course, I’ve built my own laboratories and I’ve ran my own experiments.  But when I look back, helping out the many different researchers, each in a small way – this was for me far more rewarding than if I had been given my own laboratory or experiment.  And I think this is a major reason I decided to leave scientific research and try to make my contribution in the world of IT.