It’s been an interesting week, scientifically speaking. I’ve been at this science game for a few years now and for most of that time I’ve worked with simulation, data analysis, maths and theory. Computation, that’s my thing. What can I calculate? What can I predict? What hidden gems of genuinely useful Information are buried in that torrent of data that’s just arrived, still warm from the oven?

Way back when I was getting interested in physics, it seemed that Grand Unification and Cosmology seemed to be where it was at, then an undergraduate dissertation on Order and Chaos switched me on to Complex Systems, which in turn lead to simulation and biological systems, with a fair dollop of optimisation thrown in for good measure. That’s a lot of time in front of various computers: decent typing speed, poor distance vision, gratuitous use of the word “functionality”, that sort of thing.

None of which was much preparation for where I found myself on Tuesday – alone in a departmental meeting room faced with 6 boxes of EEG equipment borrowed from the virtual reality lab downstairs. No instruct manual, needless to say. So, I spent an hour unpacking and cataloging the equipment, untangling the cables and laying everything out then another hour connecting various bits and pieces together and yet another hour installing software. I just about managed to acquire some completely useless data.

I have learned several things. Firstly, experimental work involves lugging a lot of stuff around. Secondly, it’s no less frustrating than coding, but it’s frustrating in a completely different way. Instead of “why the hell is that equal to an insane number?” it’s “how the hell does this particular box talk to that particular box, and where does the data go anyway?”. I’ve also learned that although three hours is about as long as I can reasonably concentrate, it’s not long-enough to get an experiment completely ready to go from scratch. So I’ll have another go on Monday.

One other thing, though, is that data, and experimentation, is at least half of the scientific process. Without data, it’s just speculation and theorems. Without data, it’s something else entirely. Which means that gathering my own data, instead getting a mate to do it, is a nice thing to try, even if I am pretty useless at it.

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