Working too hard?

It’s summer conference season again. For a lot of us on BaBar, that means a lot of sacrifice. The data keeps coming, and lots of results come with it. A consequence of the “distracting” events in Europe is that fewer people seem to be feeling more of the load than ever before. The LHC is wonderful – don’t misunderstand me – but there are only a limited number of particle physicists to go around and other experiments are bound to feel the pinch. BaBar is no exception, I suspect.

This past week, I got to the office and found a voicemail on my desk phone. It was from a student I work with, and was in regards to a meeting that I had  canceled due to my work load. “I’m worried about you,” they simply said, “I think you’re working too hard.” Talk about a cold bucket of reality tossed on a situation. When a graduate student expresses concern that you’re working too hard, you are working too hard.

Jodi’s noticed it, too. She thought the current long snap of working til midnight would last just a few weeks, but when I told her that some of this may last through August, she got worried. I’m worried, too. I don’t like getting e-mails on Friday evenings asking me why I didn’t turn in that thing I promise, either. I also don’t like feeling obliged to do them. But sometimes those things are important and steal your weekend away from you. Particle physics experiments on limited budgets and time scales don’t run themselves.

On the other hand, this past week Jodi and I indulged our subversive sides and purchased a few coffee mugs from www.despair.com. Despair.com makes anti-inspirational posters, such as “Worth: just because you’re necessary doesn’t mean you’re important.” The backdrop to these sage words of advice (critical for anybody on a large collaboration like BaBar) was a series of interlocking gears all turning in step. Another mug we purchased simply read, “Quality: The race for quality has no finish line, so technically it’s more like a death march.” These are funny, but they are also excellent reminders to all of us on large experiments.

Don’t think that just because you have half a dozen things to do for the experiment, that you’re important. You’re necessary – if you don’t do the work, nobody else will. But you’re probably not going to get a Nobel for it (if that’s important to you). Of course, worth is an issue of perception. I know just as many “data dork” physicists, armchair jockeys who spend their day mesmerized by their physics analysis work, who discount computational problems as I know computational physicists who see  the data dorks as arrogant pricks that think  experiments run themselves. Of course, without either the experiment wouldn’t function, but good luck getting in the middle of that one.

I guess what I am getting at is this: I have to be careful not to think that just because I have all of this “important” work to do, that I need to spend every night until 1 am doing it. You gotta take time for yourself, even during conference season (especially during conference season?). The most important thing to remember is another great saying from despair.com: “Pressure: it can turn a lump of coal into a flawless diamond, or an average person into a perfect basketcase.”

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