Saturday, October 3, 2009

Life as an Independent Researcher (scientific misfit)

As a born again scientist, my main emphasis is doing independent research in astrophysics. I really love this area because it satisfies my desire for seeing the big picture, and it also caters to my appreciation of theoretical endeavors. There are a number of areas within astrophysics I enjoy exploring, the theoretical basis of black holes, dark matter and dark energy, cosmology, the large scale structure of the universe and galaxy clusters, and most of all gravitational wave astronomy.

The area that I spend most of my time researching is gravitational wave detection. Gravitational waves are predicted by Einstein’s general relativity. To date, no direct detection of gravitational waves has been recorded. However the time is ripe for the first detection because by 2015 with the operation of Advanced LIGO, the detection of gravitational waves will become commonplace and gravitational wave astronomy will usher in a new era in the field of astronomy.

As an independent researcher, i.e. not employed by a research institution that is a member of the LSC (LIGO Scientific Collaboration), I have no access to the raw data collected by LIGO. When I inquired about why the data was not freely available, nobody could give me a solid answer. My feeling is that since pure science results that are not classified in terms of military secrecy should be open to the taxpaying public given that the project is being funded by the NSF. The only reason I could ascertain was that if they gave out the data and the public analyzed it and someone declared a detection of a gravitational wave, then the gravitational wave orthodoxy would have to verify it. Too many false detections would therefore waste the establishment’s time. I guess I can accept that, so I’ve had to work around this problem of being an independent.

One route I explored was to become a “free agent” in astrophysics. I was directed to several people in the LSC about my ideas of applying evolutionary algorithms to the data analysis task of LIGO. Each researcher I spoke to found merit in my suggestions. Ultimately, I was invited to make a presentation to the LSC at one of their regular group meetings. That way, I could be accepted as an independent member of LSC. Currently, there are no such members. Feeling like a square peg in a round hole (aka research misfit), I opted to look for another path.

One promising alternative I discovered was the Mock LISA Data Challenge (MDLC) project. LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) is the future generation of gravitational wave observatories. It will be the first space-based observatory. The MDLC project is designed to take a head start on the data analysis task by inviting research groups to devise innovative detection algorithms using artificially generated LISA data, injected with waveforms predicted for a variety of astrophysical events that give off gravitational waves such as coalescing super-massive black holes. Participating with MDLC does not require membership in LSC.

The moral of this story and the valuable lesson I learned through my experiences an astrophysics outsider (you may meet with similar obstacles when trying to breach the boundaries of other scientific fields) is that the science establishment might not know what to do with you. In my experience the researchers are generally receptive of new ideas, and in my case, I was told that the LIGO data analysis group was actively engaging researchers from other disciplines to come up with fresh methods. This is a very good indication of openness.

1 comment:

  1. I wouldn't say u r a misfit, after all u have this blog! Power.
    -Janice Williamson

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