If at first you don't succeed: Madrid week five

Last week was a week of success for me. I solved a problem that’s been plaguing me for about six months! I’m not going to talk in great detail about what exactly the problem was (I’m saving that for a post in a couple of weeks’ time), but it was one of those small, persistent issues that had been sitting at the back of my mind for too long, only occasionally surfacing to gape at my conscious thoughts like a particularly vapid carp.

I’d had a Skype call with my collaborators on Thursday, where we all agreed that this problem was the last thing we needed to fix before we could call this project complete. At that point, I was still completely stumped as to what was causing the issue — a strange peak appearing on a plot that really shouldn’t have been there, and didn’t have any obvious physical meaning or motivation — but promised to keep thinking about it, and also to share my code with them, so we could all have a look and try and find the root of the matter. I stayed in the office until late, cudgelling my brains, but eventually decided that the answer wasn’t coming and headed home.

On Friday morning, I opened up my code again. After about an hour of intermittently plotting various things, checking email and staring into space, I suddenly realised exactly what the problem was — and that the solution was thankfully extremely simple. The points I was plotting needed to be in a certain order. I’d created a list with the correctly ordered points, but was accidentally plotting the points from the unordered list. I added one line to my script to reorder them and hey presto, the weird peak was banished into the ether forever.

The feeling of finding the solution was wonderful. I actually jumped up from my desk and celebrated like I’d just scored the winning goal in a Champions League final. I don’t really care that the solution was trivial. It’s the first time that I’ve solved a long-term problem in my research completely by myself, simply by persevering and trying again and again.

Overall, the experience has made me reflect about how beneficial my move to Spain has been. It’s a cliche, but they do say a change is as good as a rest. It’s almost like my brain has been rebooted; back in Portsmouth I could live my life almost on autopilot, which meant that my research and creativity were stagnating. While I’m here I have to think a lot harder about mundane things, which has led me to think harder about the tricky things too, like cosmology. It’s made me feel like I’m enjoying my work a lot more and I’m fervently hoping I can bring this positive momentum back with me when I return to the UK in July.

Now that all the results are finalised, the rest of this week will be focused on preparing our paper draft for submission. I’m looking forward to getting it finished and out into the world, as it will be my first first-author paper. I’m also really looking forward to getting it out so I can switch to focusing completely on my standard sirens forecasting work.

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