Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A New Project

So, you all know by now that research is frustrating, right? The project that was supposed to be my thesis... Well, I was spinning my wheels on that for a long time. Couldn't get any traction. When we finally, finally understood the theoretical description of our problem, we discovered that 1: the experimental device we were trying to build wasn't going to work (although not for the reasons I had thought it wouldn't) and 2: the theory behind wasn't new. Other people had already done these calculations.

Ugh, that's very vague. I never know how much I can say about my actual research. I mean, in science, you're supposed to publish in peer reviewed journals, not blogs. But I think it's okay to tell you that I was working on a new kind of optical gyroscope.

Ordinary optical gyroscopes, usually called ring laser gyroscopes, are pretty simple, in principle. Basically, when you rotate a certain type of laser, the frequency of the light coming out of it changes. If you want to know how fast you're rotating, measure the frequency of your laser. This is useful for navigation. Keep track of how fast you're turning and for how long, and you always know what direction you're facing. You can know really accurately, enough to navigate by dead reckoning alone. So all of these airplanes and ships and satellites carry little lasers on board now; optical gyroscopes are pretty standard, apparently.

Anyway, we were supposed to be building a more sensitive optical gyroscope, capable of detecting even very tiny rotations. But it turns out that the effect we thought would simply enhance the sensitivity has a lot of other consequences as well -- like making the frequency measurement much harder to do accurately. And the conditions under which this effect happens turn out to be narrow and hard to realize in practice, and realizing them handicaps the sensitivity in other ways. Which explains why we never managed to demonstrate the increased sensitivity experimentally.

So. End of story, right? So much for my thesis. I've been at loose ends now for a couple of months, wondering if I was ever going to graduate, if I had to start all over, worn out and kind of burned out by the whole saga of the gyroscope. (And meanwhile working on the trap, which is a two person job, with Ken. The trap is always, always frustrating. About two hundred pieces of equipment have to be working all at once in order to trap atoms at all, and optimizing them all takes half a day for two people, even when things are working well, which is not very often. And then when you change anything, it can take days or weeks or months to get the trap back, as you try to track down the problem among all those parts... We've recently changed some things. Ken found a better way of doing what he's trying to do with the trap, in some papers. But it's So. Much. Work.)

To sum up: Arghh! Damnit! Arrrrghh!

But the effect that was supposed to make the gyroscope more sensitive, the effect that other people have already discovered and written about? In trying to understand it, a question occured to us (well, to my advisor) to which we can't seem to find any answer in the literature. Nor is the answer obvious from theory. At first this seemed like bad news -- we still don't totally understand! But now my advisor has given me the assignment of attempting to answer the question experimentally. The fact that no one else seems to know the answer means that the result of such an experiment would potentially be publishable... And more importantly, could go into a thesis.

And that means that all my work so far isn't wasted. The stuff that I learned about this effect, even the stuff I learned about gyroscopes (because depending on the answer to our question, maybe some of those problems I mentioned can be gotten around someday), can still go into my thesis. These things are supposed to be about 200 pages long, but most of that is usually background material. I was worried that all the background I'd been learning was going to turn out to be totally irrelevant, that'd I'd have to start from scratch. So I am incredibly relieved to be given a new problem that is actually related to the work I've already done.

Now actually doing the experiment is going to be hard, don't get me wrong. I don't know where I'm going to find the time, considering that the trap is going to continue to be a two person job, and there are only three of us in the lab. And I've still got classes to take... And I'm already forseeing a million problems with trying to set this new experiment up, and the problems that you forsee aren't ever the bad ones, either.

But those frustrations are for later. Right now, I'm just relieved to have a new project that won't require me to start from scratch.

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