January 7, 2011

Mystery Novels and Mass Spectrometers

Posted by Evelyn Mervine

The Element2 mass spectrometer at WHOI. Image taken from here.

This past week geoblogger Callan Bentley of Mountain Beltway reviewed books on time, fallacies, dirt, and climate change. There are some great books in his reviews– some I’ve read already and some I’ve added to my reading list. Alas, I am afraid that my reading list is quite long. I’m very impressed at how many non-fiction books Callan manages to find the time to read. I think Callan must be superhuman– he seems to do so much!

In recent years, I have found that my reading habits have changed somewhat. Since childhood, I have been in the habit of reading every night before bed. I still read most nights before bed, but I’m afraid that both the quantity and the “quality”, so to speak, of my reading has degraded since I started graduate school.

The degradation of quantity is easy to explain. I just don’t have as much time and energy for reading. As for the “quality” of my reading, I read far more “serious” books in high school and undergrad than I do now in graduate school. There are dozens of non-fiction books about geology on my reading list, but I find that I only read two or three of these books a year. Instead, I read science fiction, fantasy, and mystery novels. At least, this is what I read in my free time. I guess that if you count research for my thesis, I do read a fair amount of non-fiction geology in the form of papers, research books, and others students’ theses. I think all the reading I do for my PhD research leaves my brain somewhat tired. Much as I want to select (looking at my bookshelf) a book such as “Volcanoes of the Solar System” for my nightly reading, I am much more likely to pick up a fantasy or mystery novel.

In addition to being a bit burnt out from all my reading for my PhD, another reason I select somewhat lighter books these days is that much of the time I have for reading I also need to periodically be paying attention to other things– namely, chemical separation columns and mass spectrometers.

For example, on Wednesday I spent 10 hours measuring uranium and thorium concentrations on the Element2 Mass Spectrometer here at WHOI. 10 hours is actually a very short day for me on the Element2. Normally, when I run this mass spectrometer I run for 14-16 hours. There are two reasons for this. First, you pay about $1000 per day to use the machine, so you want to maximize this time. Second, it takes two or three hours to set-up and tune the machine. Once the machine is tuned, you want to run as many samples as you can.

When the Element2 is running poorly, I have to pay close attention to every sample and continually re-tune the machine. However, when the machine is running well– as it was on Wednesday– I have about three minutes of waiting time for every blank, standard, and sample I run. I still need to stay at the machine in case there is a problem (unfortunately my samples are too valuable for me to risk automating the analysis), but I don’t have to pay close attention.

I have tried doing various “productive” things during this waiting time such as reading journal articles, reducing data,  and writing parts of my thesis.  However, I have found that trying to be “productive” during the waiting time is futile. Three minutes isn’t enough time to focus and make progress, so I just end up re-reading the same sentence of a paper a dozen times. So, after the first two times I ran the mass spectrometer I gave up on trying to do “productive” activities during this waiting time. However, I found that just sitting there for those three minute stretches (for 12+ hours) is mind-numbingly boring. So, I have found that reading a book– the type of book that can easily be picked up and put down– is a good solution.

Certain types of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery books are perfect for this “pick up and put down” reading. Last year, I made my way through the Sword of Truth fantasy series, much of which I read while waiting for a column to drip or a mass spectrometer to analyze an isotope. Currently, I am making my way through the Elizabeth Peters Egyptian mystery novels. I anticipate that the Peters novels will carry me through the rest of my labwork this year.

The Sword of Truth fantasy series. Image from Wikipedia.
The first Elizabeth Peters Egyptian mystery novel. Image taken from here.

I plan to take a few months off after I finish my PhD before I start either a job or postdoc. This planned break gives me time to join my fiance abroad and go through immigration and such. Also, this break will give my brain some rest after many years of school. Hopefully, during these months off I will tackle a good portion of my reading list– and not just the rest of the Peters mysteries, delightful as they may be.