I ask myself this question frequently, usually when I review my to-do list, and wonder how I’ve managed to take so much longer to complete the tasks than I originally planned. Today, for example, I spent the whole day working on a program that will automatically plot some nice histograms of my data. I hadn’t intended to spend the whole day on doing just this, but once I started, it just seemed to eat up the whole day. Worse, the program still isn’t finished! Maybe it’s a problem peculiar to IDL (it is a rather long winded programming language, but you can make pretty plots with it). But I doubt it. IDL just makes it even easier for a small task to take up your whole life. But just think of the pretty pictures it makes!
In fact, the pretty picture bit wasn’t taking the time. It’s the handling of the data, and making the code flexible so that I can feed it a whole bunch of different data, and ask it to sort it in different ways, and to plot it sensibly, all at the touch of a button. So I’m just spending my time up front, rather than later down the line.
So getting back to the question, “what do I do all day?”. Far from being a flippant remark, to anyone who is not me (or a post-doctoral researcher who works in a very similar area of work to me) it is a valid question. You might be curious about what do scientists do all day. You might even ask what scientists spend your taxes on. I can only speak for myself, but I thought I’d give it a go, seeing as I’ve had enough of IDL for one day. As my brain in almost a mush at this point in the day, I thought I’d go through the most mundane of tasks.
I run computer models. I edit the code of said models, to do little experiments and tests (this takes longer than it sounds). I find bugs in the code. I plot up the data from the models, often in comparison to observed data. Sometimes, I will process the data (eg using statistics to understand the data) before plotting the processed data. Hmm, that’s essentially it, I think. And I think that’s actually broadly similar to many other scientists in other disciplines, it’s just the specific methods that differ.
Why do I do all this sitting in front of a computer, writing code when I’m not actually a computer programmer? That’s a very good question, and one which is sometimes hard to answer when you’ve just spent hours, days or even weeks trying to get your code to work. It’s important to remember that these programs and models are just tools to use to try and understand the world around us, and to help answer scientific questions.
But what are the questions, you ask? Well, I think that’s a question for another blog post.