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The flip-flop world of research


By Louise Mayor

Life in research involves a turbulent rollercoaster of emotions. But often the only glimpse we see is the success and jubilation of when things work out and results get published.

This new video report (below) offers a behind-the-scenes look into the whole research process, from the long hours spent working in the lab to that day when the results finally get accepted for publication in a journal. It features researchers at Nottingham University achieving a breakthrough in part of their broader aim: to construct 3D objects on surfaces, atom by atom, using scanning probes. “The novel aspect of this video is not so much the science but the fact that we’ve filmed the entire research process over the course of a year or so,” says Philip Moriarty, the main protagonist in this adventure.

The joy that results when experiments go well comes across nicely when, while being filmed in the lab, Moriarty breaks off mid-sentence to throw his fists in the air and exclaim “yes!” However, he reveals that the groundwork preceding what looks so effortless has been 18-months-plus in the making and has sometimes involved 24- and even 36-hour shifts.

But research is rarely over once you’ve got that crucial result: there are then the highs and lows of trying to get the work published in as prestigious a journal as possible. Moriarty highlights that there’s a definite hierarchy of journals to which physicists submit papers. In this case their work was rejected from both Nature and Science before finally being accepted in Physical Review Letters.

Film-maker Brady Haran really digs deep with a frank set of questions that would make many less-composed subjects squirm, such as: “Why is this impressive?”; “What you’ve written…looks really hard to read and really boring – who’s this for?”; and “If only you and a select number of people in the world can understand that paper, how is it doing the world any good?”

The up-and-coming Haran highlights this video on his blog as a great example of what he hopes to achieve with science films. Haran is the mastermind behind the Test Tube project where this video is featured alongside a veritable trove of other gems, as well as The Periodic Table of Videos and Sixty Symbols.

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