The Scientific Workspace

Today I'd like to discuss the evolution of the scientific workspace, but before that I need to address a few comments and recent happenings.  The fluxgate magnetometer project is done, I decided to not build a bandpass filter in the unit.  Hopefully I can get the schematic drawn up nicely and post a PDF on my website content section.  Website, oh yes, there is a new website for my academic life.  I'll still be doing blog posts here, but the website will have all my static content, research, etc.

Awhile back I read an interview with Adam Savage of the popular discovery show Mythbusters.  This interview was mostly getting at how Adam works and the productivity tools he utilizes.  The question/answer that caught my attention was the following:

Q: What's your workspace setup like?

A: I have several desks: One at home, one at work, and one in my own shop. I spend little time at any of them. My workplace is wherever I'm making something, which could be in a field in gold country, or in an abandoned warehouse on a military base.

The part of the statement in bold is what I want to discuss.  Scientists are often viewed as working hard in their lab with test tubes, beakers, and bunson burners (as evidenced by a colleague asking his geoscience intro class to draw a scientist on their first day of class).  This view is really valid for only a small sector of the sciences; as geologists we are often making a workspace in the field on an outcrop of rock, working on a laptop in the office or at a coffee shop, or doing an experiment in the lab. So what is the workspace and how has it changed? 

First: Do people (not just scientists or geologists) view the workspace differently than they did in the 1960's? I think so.  With the advent of mobile computing and being able to walk around with 1000+ PDF files and books on an iPad the office is becoming less and less important.  Until the late 90's the office was the place where all your paper lived, without this support it was impossible to do much work.  Now that this isn't the case, I believe the office is becoming occupied more infrequently and being replaced with the mobile office.  The internet is also making telecommuting easier each year.  While in Houston I could occasionally see updates to spacecraft flight software coming into the repository from a colleague who programed at a Starbucks frequently.   Just a few years ago that was impossible and during the Apollo days out of the question.

Next, can the creative (yes, scientists are creatives that won't admit it) work in a single workspace like an office or lab? While they could this is a severely limiting strategy.  There are several times I've found it useful to go into the shop or lab and tinker with things and setup a laptop and work there.  Sometimes I spend the majority of the week at the desk, but sometimes I'll setup for a paper reading or programming marathon in another building or at a restaurant.  

Why would you want to work somewhere that doesn't have the big monitor and files you enjoy at your desk? Chance encounters.  While working in the traditional office should still be a component of our days, some of the most useful conversations I've had occurred with people in other buildings on campus or at a coffee shop.  

For example: in December of last year I was working in a tea shop near Denver programming an image analysis code (for the laser cave mapper).  While coding away the owner of the shop (Damon) came over to refill my glass and noticed I was writing software on a Mac.  He inquired about what I did, asked if I could answer a Mac question for him, and then from the view of an outsider to the geosciences made a comment that ended up making me think a lot about other applications for this technology.  These kind of chance encounters have happened several times and even ended up in some good professional relationships being formed.

The physics rock star Richard Feynman would have loved this notion of many workspaces I believe.  Feynman loved new ways to look at things and could be looking at a complex problem from a new angle while in the outdoors, at a blackboard, or submerged in a tub of water on hallucinogenic drugs (to see Feynman's unique mind I highly suggest his book Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman).  

I suppose the biggest point I want to make with these examples and from the quote is that as scientists it's easy to get comfy in our office surrounded by a couple of giant computer screens and full of distractions.  We shouldn't throw that office out, but be sure to go into the lab (even if you're not an experimentalist) and tinker, go into the field and observe connections, or go to a coffee shop and make that a temporary office.  Anywhere can be your workspace and it's enriching to switch between them and look at the same problem with another set of tools and surroundings. 

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