In my current job, I don’t do research, and I miss it. This is partially why I started the chemhacker project – it’s a way for me to take some fun chemical projects, research them, develop my own processes for making a few things, and maybe even make some new things.
Over the past few months, I have been slowly working on a process for making ferrofluids by making magnetite nanoparticles, then adding surfactants, and suspending them in a liquid. Starting only from (mostly) readily available household chemicals.
I started with a process that I know works, but has a lot of problems – the end product isn’t very good, and there are unnecessarily dangerous intermediate steps, but it works. I successfully ran through the bad process, listed all the problems I found, and prepared to move onto my new, safer, more efficient, better process.
And then it happened.
Or rather, it didn’t happen. It didn’t work. I ran into a problem in the early, simple stage of the reaction – it just didn’t work. I had done a lot of preparation, reading, research, and purchasing of chemicals – and it just didn’t work.
This is the life of a researcher – spend huge amounts of time, money, and resources on a problem, only to see it fail, over, and over, and over, and over.
I had completely forgotten how painful, frustrating, and infuriating research can be. Research is so frustrating, so daunting, that when I realized, after 9 months of hard work, that I had proved that my MS thesis had the possibility of working (I hadn’t proved that it worked, but I had proved that it might work), I took the rest of the week off and went skiing to celebrate the fact that I had proven that I had the possibility of graduating. Proving conclusively that my project worked would take another 12 months or so, but that first terrifying 9 months of failure still haunts me.
Which brings me back to my weekend project.
After the ghosts of failures past rose up to remind me what research really feels like, I took a break and did the next most important thing a scientist does: question everything.
Go back to basic assumptions: does the reaction actually do what I think it’s doing?
Are my chemicals actually what I think they are?
Are my measurements correct?
Are my calculations correct?
After two days of this, I returned to my lab to find that the reaction completed sometime while I was gone asking questions. My assumption that the reaction would happen quickly was wrong – everything is ok, the reaction just took longer than I thought it should.
The thrill of a recent success always tastes sweeter than the bitterness of failures past. This is what keeps me in the lab – working through the problems and solving them (or letting them solve themselves).
Get back to the lab, lab rats!
(Creative commons image from Flickr user flireflythegreat – click image for more information)