Life as a grad student

It’s 11:30 PM on a Saturday night and I’m just finishing teardown on my experiment, which takes about an hour. It’s still not “working”, but every marathon measurement session like this seems to bring it an inch closer. I am learning the skill called “persistence”.

Incredibly, I am not the only student from my lab who is still here at this hour. I am not the first to learn persistence.


I was raised to believe that Nicotine is “the most addictive substance on earth”. Maybe the meme flowed through this 1987 New York Times article: Nicotine: Harder to Kick … than Heroin. It was reinforced by authoritative quotes like “Nicotine is the most addictive chemical we know”, or fact sheets indicating that it is 5-10x more potent than cocaine or morphine. My mother’s memorable tales of being a teenage tobacco addict certainly didn’t hurt.

So I was surprised to read on Wikipedia that

Nicotine, a substance frequently implicated in tobacco addiction, is not significantly addictive when administered alone.[11] The addictive potential manifests itself after co-administration of an MAOI, which specifically causes sensitization of the locomotor response in rats, a measure of addictive potential.[12] This may be reflected in the difficulty of smoking cessation, as tobacco contains a naturally-occurring MAOI in addition to the nicotine.

These studies seem to be somewhat controversial; later papers like this one urge caution:

Several recent reports suggest that other chemical substances inhaled along with nicotine in tobacco smoke may play a role in sustaining smoking behavior. However, conflicting results have been obtained with mice and rats and these findings have not yet been validated in nonhuman primates or human subjects.

Of course, if what you really care about is the addictiveness of tobacco, then this whole debate is perfectly irrelevant … but I think it’s fascinating that the role of nicotine is still controversial.


Today was the summer solstice, and I made the most of it, biking home late in the bright evening light. I almost wish I could spend my whole life in high-latitude summer just for the long days.

You can do this, of course, given enough determination and willingness to take long jet flights. Christchurch, NZ looks about right for northern hemisphere winter, being as far South as Boston is North … but I wouldn’t mind higher. Cambridge, UK is very nice in the summer, and … hmm. There isn’t a whole lot of land at 51 degrees South. Maybe Río Gallegos in Argentina would do, if I brushed up on my Spanish.

If not, I guess there is one more option … the Falkland Islands! Too bad that the capital (Port Stanley) only has 2000 people, and it rains 27 days a month.


Attempted to make brown rice for the first time ever. Cooked it for over an hour and it was still wet and mushy … but tasty. Good enough for bachelor food, but it’s going to need some work before I can serve it to company.


Today is my 13th consecutive day in lab. This is actually sort of a good sign: it means I have something to work on, and I have the MRI scan time I need to make progress.

It’s definitely getting old though.


I felt pretty stupid wandering around all day on the brightest sunniest summeriest day of the year carrying my oversized doorman’s umbrella because of the stupid weather forecast.

I felt pretty smart walking home through a thunderstorm though.


Around 150 AD (1860 years ago), Nicomachus conjectured that there are infinitely many perfect numbers, and that they are all even. In the interim new religions, civilizations, languages, maybe even species have formed. In every generation mathematicians and philosophers have tried to determine if Nicomachus was right or wrong. Today we still don’t know, on either count. A hundred generations have passed since Nicomachus, and in a hundred more these two questions may still be unsolved.

Math is hard.