Have you ever stared at data so long that it gave you a headache?
Yeah, it was one of those days. Finishing up the data analysis so that we can meet a fast-approaching deadline, we were derailed a bit when we discovered a small error in our analysis. Luckily, it was very minor, and we were able to rerun the necessary experiments quickly. Unfortunately, the new analysis shows that our results are not as good as they were before. They're still good, but it's not a slam-dunk. But there are definitely some new and interesting trends in the corrected data. The problem is that there's something there, some worthwhile insight, in the data that I can intuitively sense but that is not 100% clear to me. Hence, spending most of the day staring at data, replotting it different ways, calculating different errors, printing out graphs and tables, hoping to grasp that crucial insight that I know is there but is so far eluding me. I was hoping to finish this section of the paper today, but I reached a point where I just couldn't think straight anymore, so I went home. Ah, summer.
I'm not too worried at this point--the insight will either come to me, or else I'll come up with some other "good enough" explanation to meet the deadline. Sometimes patience is your best friend when dealing with tricky data. My undergrads, though, are completely mortified. I think I spent as much time today giving them pep talks: no, this is not entirely your fault; no, this does not mean that everything you did this summer is worthless; no, having your hypothesis partially disproved is not the end of the world, and in fact most of the time this leads to the most interesting results. I suspect that I'll have cheerleader duty again tomorrow.
What this experience made me realize is how much of a teacher experience is. I can remember as an undergrad being *terrified* of messing up--that if I made a mistake, I'd be fired from the lab. Even as a grad student, early on, I was afraid of the wrong turn, the dead end, the experiment that didn't work out as planned. Time and experience taught me to value these experiences, to look for the dead ends, to pull something out of even the most badly botched experiments. This is not something any one person taught me, and I know that nothing I say will help my students learn this lesson either. As with my data, the only thing I can do to help my students is to patiently repeat the message that everything will turn out fine in the end, in the hopes that someday much later, they'll understand what I meant.