Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The elevator message

I had a conversation today that made me think about the following. These days we're told countless times that it's essential for a scientist to have an "elevator message". That is, we need to be able to describe what we're doing in a pitch accessible to a lay person ideally in something like a single sentence. Some people have a comparatively easy time of this. They can say "I'm trying to cure cancer", or "I'm trying to solve the energy crisis", and have that be a reasonable description of their overarching research goals. Condensed matter physicists in general often have trouble with this, and tend to fall back on things like "My work will eventually enable faster computers" or "...better sensors". I'm all in favor of brief, accessible descriptions of what scientists do, but there are times when I think the elevator message idea is misguided. Not every good research program can be summed up in one sentence.

In the case of my group, we are trying to understand the (electronic, magnetic, and optical) properties of matter on the smallest scales, with an eye toward eventually engineering these properties to do useful things. It's basic research. Sometimes we can test existing theoretical ideas or address long-standing questions; sometimes, because we're working in previously unexplored regimes, we find surprises, and that can be really fun. I know that this italicized section is more sophisticated and therefore less pithy than "it'll give us faster computers". Still, I feel like this longer description does a much better job of capturing what we're actually doing. Our work is much more like puzzle-solving and exploring than it is a focused one-goal pursuit. I don't think that this means I lack vision, but I'm sure others would disagree.

On a separate note: Thanks, Arjendu, for pointing me to this, Microsoft Research's hosting of a series of Feynman lectures at Cornell in 1964. Very cool, even if I had to install MS's plug-in for the video.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

As I understand, the "e.m" originally comes from P.L. Kapitza (damn you, ecxperimenters!). He used to say that a good scientist should be able to explain to a cleaning lady what he is doing for living ;). I guess, American scientific tradition shortened the attention of that legendary cleaning lady to one sentence (makes sense?) Anyways, the whole idea of 1 centence is a bit cheap, since it does not make layman any cleverer (damn egghead did not have time for another sentence!)

Anonymous said...

Your elevator message, though longer than a sentence, is actually not to bad... Just think of how awful us theorists have it!

Felipe said...

I'm a PhD student working on a computational approach to electronic transport on nanotube films.

My "e.m." usually goes as this: "I study how to conduct electricity on very small things. If we understand this people will be build a flexible display/screen, and maybe even a whole computer."

I know the second part is quite an overstatement, but it works wonders when I use it to get a girl's attention in a bar.

Anonymous said...

A beautiful example of useful "elevator message" (kinda relevant today):

http://pics.livejournal.com/vls_777/pic/0015qb5x

Massimo said...

AMEN !

Anonymous said...

Remember that the elevator message is an idea taken from the corporate world. An elevator message is for is advertising yourself, and like all good ads, it should be short and memorable. You're not educating anyone about your work - one sentence is far too short - you are giving a brief demonstration that you are the kind of person they want to associate with more and possibly collaborate with/hire.

chemical engineering said...

Interesting to read nano level physics blog as I am interested in nano technology

Doug Natelson said...

Perhaps a better way for me to approach this would be to give more context. Someone asked me about the elevator message in the context of a larger question, "How would it impact society and the world if all of your research goals worked out well?" If I was working directly on curing cancer or energy production, this would be an easy question to answer. However, much of my work is on pretty basic science, and the whole point of basic research is that the long-term implications are often wide open.