In science, a big part of your daily work is to critically assess other peoples and – more importantly – your own work. This can sometimes lead you into states of mind, which let you seriously doubt that everything is okay with said mind. I have ventured into such a state last week.
In particular it was a state of paranoia – paranoia about the abilities of past-Thomas to get anything correctly done.
You are probably familiar with the concept of past-, present- and future-self’s, especially if you have watched How I met your Mother. But just to avoid confusion, I will quickly explain:
If, let us say, I go out this evening and have a beer too much1, then I do this because it is not a problem for present-Thomas (aka “the guy who enjoys just-one-more cold beer”) but for future-Thomas (aka “the guy that wakes up tomorrow morning with a hangover”) who will curse the by then past-Thomas (aka “the guy who enjoyed the cold beer”).
But back to present-Thomas`s5 (aka “last week’s Thomas”) paranoia about past-Thomas`s (aka “last year’s Thomas”) “insufficiencies”.
Present-Thomas was comparing his own chemical data set with literature data and “just-to-make-sure-cause-something-seemed-a-bit-odd” was having a quick look at an Excel-Sheet which past-Thomas had used to do his data reduction6 …
72 hours later: Present-Thomas had found a huge mistake in the data reduction sheet7, had glanced over past-Thomas`s notes on the problem, had fixed the problem, had found that this totally screwed up the out coming data, found that the problem actually was already addressed in the original data reduction sheet (just in another place) and found that this was actually explained in past-Thomas`s notes, if he would have read them and not just glanced over them. He also found that past-Thomas had indeed done a small mistake. For a few elements of the data set he had not chosen the highest quality ones. Mind you, he had worked out which data was of the highest quality, but for some reason had chosen the slightly lower in quality elements.
To use an analogy: If past-Thomas would have built a car, and present-Thomas would have noticed that it feels “a bit funny” while driving, present-Thomas would have taken the car apart, fit another motor in, got it out again, got the old motor back in, to then realize that past-Thomas had accidently put the spare wheel on and one of the normal wheels in the boot.
I think it is totally normal that we distrust our past self (Figure 1), and while growing older we more and more realize that our future-self will not understand what our present-self was actually up to. However, doing a PhD (or science in general) distorts this view (Figure 2) – and that can sometimes be a bit worrying, as you do not know how much distortion is good for you (Figure 3).
4 I think …
6 The process which transforms the measurement from [insert used method here] into a sensible data set.
7 In hindsight I would term it “Pandoras Excel-Sheet”