Research mentality at the Applied Physics sports day

Difficulty    

by Suzanne van Dam

Last Thursday was the yearly Applied Physics sports day. As is tradition, QuTech participated in big numbers. We competed with three teams, and it was clear already from the start that the goal of the day was not just to participate, it was also to win!

The QuTech team.
Figure 1: The QuTech team.

The winners mentality of the QuTech teams made me wonder: why were we more competitive than the average student team? Is there an analogy between sports and research that underpins this?

Endurance

The first thing that comes to mind is the endurance that both a sportsman and a scientist need (to compensate for my use of the general term ‘sportsman’ for what could also be a ‘sportswoman’, let’s picture a female scientist here). This endurance comes in two different flavours.
Firstly it is a never-give-up mentality that a sportsman has who trains six days a week, and that a scientist needs to try a new path after running into yet another dead end. Both for a sportsman and a scientist, these moments behind the scenes are crucial towards success.
Secondly, the mentality that makes a sportsman squeeze our last bits of energy for a final sprint, is the mentality that makes a scientist measure late into the night if a setup is finally working.

Optimism

The mentality I described above can be intense and is one that cannot be sustained without fuel: what is it that drives a sportsman into a daily training routine, and what is the fuel that drives a scientist? I think one thing that both have in common is: optimism. In a scientist one often finds an above-average belief that a goal will eventually be reached, even if the numbers look like they may not work out (yet). This is crucial for the progress of science. Only by going down an unlikely path can genuinely new and innovative ideas can be formed. In the same way a sportsman would set out for a goal: aiming for Tokyo 2020, without knowing, but still believing that she has a chance to compete and win.
If you now think that this optimism is the result of previous successes, like winning a race or publishing a paper, I would reply that I think this is not the full story: these events are simply too scarce. One of the greatest challenges as a scientist is to decouple optimism and endurance from immediate success.

Success

In the above paragraph I defined success for a sportsman as winning a race, and for a scientist as publishing a paper. These seem at first sight obvious analogies, but it also shows how sports and science are different. In sports, there can only be one winner. The equivalent notion in science would then have to be that there can only be one person that publishes a result first. While this can seem like quite a race sometimes, and whether you agree with or like this part of science or not, I think the analogy with sports fails at an important point: the ultimate goal of science is not to win these kind of races, but rather to increase all of our shared knowledge. Publishing is one of the most important tools to achieve this, but it is a tool rather than a goal in itself. This sets it apart from winning a sports race, and even leads me to conclude that the very notion of winning in science has to remain undefined. Apparently sports and science are not so similar after all.

So (why) did we (want to) win the cup?

From the above considerations it seems like our winners mentality could be caused by a good dose of optimism about our own abilities. But I think there is also another factor involved: it is simply a lot of fun to have a common goal that everyone is working hard towards. And here the analogy to science is simple: this is a situation that is not unlike the spirit at QuTech!

To conclude, you are of course curious whether our optimism was justified. Since in sports winning is so clearly defined, this question is easily answered: yes! (Proof is provided in Figure 2).

Figure 2 - Winners!
Figure 2: Winners!

Suzanne van DamSuzannevanDam – My name is Suzanne, and I am doing a PhD in the lab of Ronald Hanson, since two years now. One of my favourite things is to see the quantum world in the lab on a daily basis. My hope is that from this blog it will become clear why I am so excited about this!

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