A Day in the Life

By JoAnne Hewett | October 12, 2005 1:47 am

My family and friends are constantly trying to figure out just what it is that I do. As noted in the comments on Clifford’s recent post, our loved ones – loving as they are – just don’t get it. They all seem to understand that we have accomplished something, but really don’t have a clue as to what that something is, or even how we spend our time. My best friend’s husband summed it up best: “Just what is it that you do during the day?” he asked. I tried to explain, but his eyes glazed over quickly. I now have a neat one-liner, meant to answer such inquiries: “I get paid to think.” For me, that seems to sum it up fairly well.

But now I’ve got this blogging gig, and I can go into a little more depth. I plan to do so in a series of posts, `A day in the life.’ In this series, I will list my activities for the day, in the hope that it will become more clear just how us academics spend our time. I hope I don’t bore you to death.

Today was kind-of a ho-hum average day, so it seems like a perfect place to start.

First activity of the day (even before making coffee): Check email. Answer email that came in overnight. Check the blog.

Morning at work: Chat with co-workers. Deal with referee reports: write a reply to answer a referee report on my latest paper, print out the large review article that I have been asked to referee (printer jammed several times, so the printing process took awhile), started to read another paper that I have been asked to referee – determined that they included all the correct Feynman diagrams contributing to their calculation. Started the required computer training course for supervisors on detecting sexual harassment (last week we determined that supervising graduate students counts as being an official lab/university supervisor). Talked at length on the phone with my former graduate student, and laid out the groundwork for a new project we are starting (I’m quite excited about it!). Filled out the paperwork to have my desktop monitor, which died last week, fixed or replaced. Cleaned out my backpack (this was not trivial). Read through the latest draft of responses to a set of questions posed by the EPP2010 panel about the future of high energy physics. Continuous monitoring of email.

Noticed I had worked through lunchtime. Had a discussion with my long-term associate Tom Rizzo on the Statistical Mechancis properties of TeV mass blackholes. (This evening Tom sent some very interesting results he had computed for his new project!)

Left for home mid-afternoon to work on my ongoing deck staining project. Stained 32 feet of railing (slats every 6 inches!) before darkness fell. The deck has to get stained before it cools down and the rains start.

Watched the NOVA special on Einstein’s Big Idea and saw the stuff missing from our special sneak preview at SLAC.

Just before bed: post on the blog. Check email one last time.

This was just an average day for any academic. No epiphanies, no frustrated calculations, no nonsensical answers from computer code. Just the average, day-to-day grind work that us academics deal with.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2005/09/cft-and-tomato-soup-can.html Plato

    Have you ever talk to Giddings?

    If this possibility is true, the most remarkable prediction of this scenario is that black holes could be created at high-energy accelerators, perhaps as early as with the LHC. We studied this problem of black hole creation and decay carefully, and came to the conclusion that there could be a lot of black holes made (up to around one per second) and that they could apparently produce very outstanding effects in the detectors at the LHC. This possibility has obviously aroused a lot of interest.


    Yep, it does mine.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne

    Plato, yep, I find the possibility of blackholes at the LHC very interesting. Check out my paper from last Spring:

    By JoAnne L. Hewett, Ben Lillie, Thomas G. Rizzo (SLAC),. SLAC-PUB-11024, Mar 2005. 5pp.
    e-Print Archive: hep-ph/0503178

  • Torbjorn Larsson

    I think you succeeded in making your work day sound ordinary enough. Except that you do some work _before_ making coffee! :-)

  • Jay

    I’m curious if you find the time spent to learning to “detect sexual harassment” worthwhile? Or, is it a distraction?

  • citrine

    Are you teaching any classes? If so, how come you didn’t spend any time grading? (Or do T.A.s do it for you?)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne

    Jay, for me the sexual harassment course was a bit of a distraction (especially at 2 hours long!). I’m fairly well attuned to such things. However, I can personally vouch that there are some people who need the training – badly.

    Citrine, SLAC has a funny status. It is both a school within Stanford University (same as, say, the school of engineering), and a national laboratory. We have a faculty (of which I’m a member) that are professors at Stanford Unversity. However, in practice we are really a lab, so we are research oriented and generally don’t teach. Once in awhile we’ll teach a special topics course on some aspect of high energy physics. I did so last Winter quarter. That was the third quarter I’ve taught in the 12 years I’ve been here.

    The fact that we don’t teach makes what we do even more mysterious to people. Everybody can understand teaching, and assumes that either we teach or we sit around twiddling our thumbs.

  • Arun

    You’re lucky – you get paid to think. In the Dilbertesque world of the large American corporation, one is often paid to suspend one’s ability to think.

    Examples available on request.

  • Tom Renbarger

    I’ll be interested to see what you’ll have after you’ve written a few of these “day in the life” posts, JoAnne. One of the things that tends to get lost in the shuffle is the nature of science as a process, as opposed to a collection of results (the way it is almost exclusively reported), and your project is exactly the sort of thing that can remedy this misperception.

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  • Aaron F.

    Great post!!! I’ve always wondered what theoretical physicists and mathematicians do all day. I mean, if you’re an experimentalist or an engineer, you can fiddle with machinery and analyze data and such… but I can’t imagine getting paid to sit around and think. What if you couldn’t think of anything? I’d feel so guilty…

  • citrine


    According to the mathematician Erdos, a mathematician is a machine that turns coffee into equations. I’d say that this is true of many theoretical physicists as well.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Aaron F.

    If you can’t think of something, you find out what others are thinking. In other words, you read a paper, read a book, go to a seminar, (check a blog), ichat or call a colleague and ask a question, etc. Pretty soon, you’ve got new stuff to chew on and useful thoughts spurt out all over the place.



  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne

    Aaron F: Indeed new ideas just tend to sprout, as Clifford spelled out. I never have the time to work on all of them and have to pick and choose.

    Citrine: Indeed the caffiene factor is most joked about. However, at least at SLAC, many of us are caffiene-free (for medical reasons due to previous mistreatments of the powerful drug). So coffee is not a factor.

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