You may have noticed that I didn’t submit a post for June. Despite my best intentions, moving across the country interfered somewhat with my sense of time, and I lost track of the concept of monthly deadlines entirely. I’m two weeks into my position at LIGO Hanford Observatory right now, and circumstances have kept my perception of time equally muddled.
It seems like I never existed in Ann Arbor, even though my calendar insists that it’s only been three weeks since I packed my life into a Ford Fiesta and headed west. My mom drove most of the way - my best intentions of splitting the drive evenly were foiled by my right shoulder painfully locking up. It took us three days and change to get to Richland, although we probably could have pushed through the final day and made it in three. We made a small detour too - we went to Mount Rushmore, which I’ve concluded should be moved to Wyoming so that South Dakota can be topologically folded out of existence. Apparently everyone says it’s smaller than they thought, and I agree with that. Pictures of it always look like you can stand right next to it, when really, it’s at the top of a rock spire.
Once I got to Richland, my mom and I set up my apartment, and I started work the following Monday. Since then, I haven’t spent fewer than ten hours a day at the observatory. This is good, because I am making real progress and learning the hands-on side of the physicist’s trade. There are very few days when I go home not having learned something important and useful about signal analysis, measurement, or fabrication.
The bad part of this is also that I haven’t spent fewer than ten hours a day at the observatory. Most of my time is spent at the station at the end of one of the arms, in cleanroom garb and laser safety goggles. The observatory used to use only infrared lasers, but a green laser has been added. Since green lasers are in the visible spectrum, the laser goggles make everything dimmer and completely block one wavelength of green light. The strange darkness and isolated environment distort my sense of time, so I often don’t realize that it’s reaching six or seven in the evening until my body begins to object to sitting idle in the chilled, cavernous room. I came home Friday exhausted to tears. Literally. I am now acutely aware of why the eight-hour day became standard for physical work; enough twelve hour days in a row, and I’m useless. I can save my energy for while I’m at work, and I do, but everything else is suffering.
The strange part of it all is that I am 99% sure that the long hours aren’t entirely intentional on the part of my supervisors, and completely assured that they aren’t malicious. I’m observing traits that I recognize in myself as my most positive ADHD traits. The “eagle eye” complete understanding of a problem, knowing all the parts that need to work in concert to make the system run - with the attached assumption that everyone else can see the big picture and don’t need additional information to understand what is being done and why. The tunnel vision of hyperfocus, which makes for very effective production but very poor acknowledgment of outside needs. Like, for example, the clock ticking on towards nine.
For the record, up until the point where I’m too exhausted and hungry to go on, the pressure of this environment has been great for my brain. I’ve been happily concentrating for anywhere from 8-10 hours a day. The analysis code that couldn’t keep my interest at U-M, when it was my only task, has made some halting progress in the bits of time I’ve been snatching between meetings, stints in the electrical shop, and trips to the end station. This blog post came more easily and fluidly than any piece of writing I’ve done since college. I’m convinced that with a few tweaks, like checking in with my supervisors to make sure they know that it’s five and they’re asking me to start something that’ll take three hours, this environment can become energizing and even healing for me. I’m worried. I’m excited. I’m hopeful. I’m doing science.
About the Author
Jax Sanders, Ph.D. Student, Physics
Published in: Student Voices