How I Do Work-Life Integration

shells-fish-rice-eggsPeople used to talk about work-life balance, as if they were two separate things. Now they talk about work-life integration, but what they mean is finding ways to infiltrate every hour of every day with this work that is not really your life. I choose to do things differently.

Seems to me that if left to our own devices, people would just spend all day doing what gives us pleasure. Some of that would involve doing things that help other people or make them happy and some would be just for us. Centuries ago, people discovered that different people like doing different things. If you take on a task that I don’t enjoy, and I take on a task that you don’t enjoy, that leaves both of us more time for the things we like, and stuff still gets done. Maybe I do some things better than you, and you do some things better than me, so we trade off those tasks as well.

That works great one-on-one between people who like and respect each other. As the groups get bigger, so do the tradeoffs. You farm rice, I catch fish, and our neighbor keeps chickens. We start out not keeping track of things, because we get what we need from the informal arrangement and everybody’s happy most of the time. But then the village gets larger, and that one neighbor who is supposed to bring in the firewood winds up exploring the woods instead. He comes back to the village now and then to get rice, fish, and eggs from the rest of us, but somehow he never gets around to bringing us the firewood like he said he would.

So we set up a system of markers to keep track of who’s doing their share. And that works fine for a while. It reminds us to balance out the things that are just for us with the things that help the village overall. Eventually, someone gets a real hunger for piling up a lot of markers. Getting markers is what they enjoy the most. They take on tasks that they don’t particularly enjoy, and they dream up trading schemes, all in the name of getting more markers. And someone else discovers that he likes to manage other people’s markers. He makes a special storage place to keep them safe, and he keeps track of who owes what to whom.

And another guy discovers that if he can get other people to work for him, he can give them a few of the markers that come in while keeping most of them for himself. Some people don’t enjoy drumming up business and keeping track of their own markers, so they are happy to just get out there and work and let this guy handle the business side.

A few lucky people get to keep doing what they enjoy and getting markers for their efforts, but many people find that the only way they can get their basic needs taken care of is to do the work that no one else wants to do. Their lives get divided into things they do because they enjoy them and things they do to get markers, and people start talking about “work-life balance” and “vacation days” and “retirement”.

Eventually, the markers take on a life of their own. Some people spend their days transporting the markers to other villages where they buy more things. Some people don’t even make things any more, they just shuffle markers around and keep some for themselves every time they make a trade. While most people stay in their home villages, in familiar surroundings with their families and friends, the markers go off around the world.

People who used to bring in plenty of markers doing one particular thing find that they can no longer make their contribution to the village, because someone in another village is doing it instead, for fewer markers. The guy who trades the markers still charges you and your neighbors the same, but he keeps the extra markers for himself.

Eventually, some people have to leave their families and friends and move to the villages where they can get enough markers for themselves, with some left over to send back home. But these new villages don’t welcome the newcomers. “You’re trying to take our jobs away,” they say, and they talk about building walls and removing the foreigners by force. The newcomers don’t know the culture or the language, and they find themselves fair game for thugs and con artists. But they stay and work, because what else can they do?

Every aspect of daily life, right down to the language, evolves to represent this separation of what you enjoy from what gets you money. “Have a nice weekend!” “Did you go anywhere over the holidays?” “We’re looking for a good retirement community.” This is the language spoken by people whose work-for-money is not the same as their work-for-enjoyment.

One of the biggest (and fastest) changes I went through after going freelance was adapting to a life that was not dictated by the 9-to-5 structure. I don’t resent working into the night, because I sleep late and do a leisurely read of the newspaper over a big mug of coffee most mornings. If I work on your holidays, it’s because I get more done when you’re not phoning me and emailing me every five minutes. When you’re slaving away in the middle of the week, I’m shopping at a nice quiet grocery store or taking photos of the autumn leaves at the neighborhood park. If I hit a slack period during the day, I don’t spend in hanging out around the break room or sitting in my cubicle watching cat videos — I do a load of laundry or two.

It’s only been four years since I left the cubicle and commute behind, but certain phrases sound very foreign to me now. “I can’t wait until Friday!” “How many vacation days do you get?” “I’m going to move to a farm way out in the country when I retire.” “I really hate my job, but I’m going to hang in there five more years.”

I’m not piling up great stacks of money these days, but I have a comfortable place to live and a refrigerator full of food. Getting paid for my work makes me a little more focused and organized, but seriously, I don’t mind doing a little paid work on my “days off” (if it’s my choice) because I enjoy what I’m doing. I have money put away for the time when I’m not able or willing to work any more, but if I’m 90 years old when that day comes, that’s OK with me. Business is picking up, to the point where remodeling the kitchen and traveling the world for fun are evolving from dreams to plans.

In that other world, people talk about “work-life integration” and they mean that you’re supposed to check your office email while you’re on a vacation trip with your family. It means that your boss can send you text messages at 5AM and expect an immediate reply.

In my world, it means that I’m doing things I like, and I decide when to do what. Some things are just for me, and some of them help other people. The part of the help-others work that I get paid for lets me pay other people to take care of the things I don’t want to (or can’t) do myself. It seems to me as if this is how I was meant to live all along.

These iron curtains are very, very sheer.


Model of the atomic structure of graphene. Source: Wikipedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Recently, a group of researchers in Dresden, Germany found a way to make one-atom-thick sheets of iron. It wasn’t what they had set out to do, but they were alert enough to see this as the intriguing discovery it was rather than an annoying byproduct to be cleaned up.

Thin metal films are used as coatings or wrappings (aluminum foil, for example), components in optical and laboratory instruments, and as chemical sensors and catalysts. For a lot of high-tech applications, including high-density recording media and electronic devices, the thinner the film, the better. The ultimate thin film would be a sheet one atom thick — a monolayer.

Carbon monolayers, known as graphene, have been around for a few years, and researchers have been busy exploring the unusual properties of these ultra-thin carbon sheets. It turns out that structures in which the atoms that are linked side-to-side, but not up and down, conduct electricity very differently than their multi-layer counterparts.

Because of the way that carbon atoms connect with one another, it forms thin sheets very easily. Graphene is just an extreme form of graphite, which is made of carbon sheets that are a few hundreds to several thousands of atoms thick. Graphene was discovered when scientists applied strips of adhesive tape to pieces of graphite and carefully peeled up the top atomic layer.

Making thin layers of metal is a more difficult proposition. Metal atoms tend to form chemical bonds in all directions, forming solid chunks. Thin sheets are formed by pressing metal slabs between rollers or vaporizing the metal and spraying it onto a surface. Applying sticky tape to a piece of metal might pull a few individual atoms loose, but it’s not very effective for peeling up an intact layer.

Also, very thin metal films require some sort of support structure, called a substrate, to hold them intact. That means that only the top of the film is available for use. Until now, a free-standing metal monolayer seemed like an interesting theoretical exercise that would never be realized in the real world.

The Dresden group made their discovery while they were making graphene. They grew graphene layers from a carbon-containing vapor deposited onto a nickel–molybenum substrate. To peel the graphene up from the substrate, they used an etching solution made of iron chloride.

When the researchers examined their graphene under an electron microscope, they found that the etching solution had left behind a residue. Under the microscope’s electron beam, this residue was converted to metallic iron, which formed very small crystals and atom clusters on the surface. Some individual iron atoms were stuck to the edges of holes in the graphene film.

hexagonal iron

Three layers of the type of iron crystal found in this study. Source: Wikipedia, public domain.

What was truly surprising, however, was the appearance of pure iron crystalline layers, one atom thick, suspended across some of the holes in the graphene sheets. Although the widest of these layers was only about ten atoms across, the layers were arranged in an orderly fashion that were definitely monolayer versions of an iron crystal.

The researchers repeated their procedure and examined several iron-contaminated graphene sheets using their electron microscope. They analyzed the structure and characteristics of the iron films, to make sure that these truly were pure iron monolayers. Their observations agreed well with the theoretical properties derived from calculations.

They watched the samples for several minutes each to see how the microscope’s electron beam affected the formation of iron monolayers. They found that, under the beam, iron atoms on the graphene surface moved around and collected in small holes, where they formed crystalline monolayers within a few seconds. The monolayers were stable for several minutes under the electron beam. However, if they left the samples under the beam for longer than that, the monolayers began to collapse to form non-crystalline three-dimensional particles.

Now that they know how to make iron monolayers, the Dresden researchers and their colleagues can try this technique with other metals and see just how large they can make these metallic sheets.

The original research results were published here: Science 2014, 343, 1228–1232
I posted a more technical summary on the American Chemical Society’s Noteworthy Chemistry blog.

Can We Talk?

(Reprinted from Flying Lessons:

My year off is officially over. I’m still at home, but I’m actively looking for work. Maybe that will be a job in the conventional sense of the word, or maybe it will be a more creative way to bring in income. I’m not sure. I’ve tried telling myself that I ought to be checking the job ads more assertively, mailing brochures to potential clients, making cold calls and all. But it just doesn’t feel right. I have chastised myself, telling myself to just get over my inertia and start the wheels moving again. Don’t be such an introvert, I say. Which is kind of like telling myself to stop having such blue eyes or stop being so short.

I have found a much better source of motivation, though. It comes through in the morning when I am writing in my journal — or sometimes at 3AM when I am wishing that I could get back to sleep. In the deep stillness of my room, little ideas make their way to the surface. Concrete, definite actions that I could take. Actions with energy and enthusiasm behind them. Actions based on what I do naturally, what I enjoy, what gives me satisfaction.

There’s a stillness born of time away from the daily commute, the meetings and deadlines and periods of boredom interspersed with crises. In that space has come an appreciation of things that I have been doing for years, but have not integrated into the way I make my living. With that realization has come a desire to more fully integrate the marketable skills with the calling of what is most important to me.

I have come to acknowledge more fully my talent for talking about scientific and technical issues in language that is engaging and easy to understand. I might not get the story first, but I get it in context and I do my best to get it right. That’s a real talent. It’s much harder than summarizing one’s research in the specialized language of one’s own field. It goes beyond opening up a stream of data in the hopes that the more information you throw at people, the more likely they are to come around to your point of view. It’s very different from “dumbing it down”. Good science writing requires me to respect my reader’s intelligence and convey an accurate, nuanced picture in language that is both precise and accessible.

Good science writing is an act of empathy. When I’m conducting interviews for an article, I have to do my homework ahead of time to know who it is I’m talking to and have some basic knowledge of their work. I don’t want to waste this person’s time asking basic questions that could be answered easily with a little online research. It’s incumbent on me to know and convey to the person I’m interviewing the purpose of the article I’m writing and to ask for information that makes my article into something worth reading. I’m responsible for communicating to my source just why it is that he or she is exactly the person who can best help me learn and convey the specific information I’m going after.

I have to use my skills in asking questions to encourage my sources to talk about the most interesting, relevant, or important parts of their work. I have to listen carefully to what my sources are telling me. I can’t assume that I know in advance what they are going to say. I can’t shape their answers into what I think they should have said. I can’t be reluctant to ask for clarification — even if I think I understand what they meant to say. This requires a certain humility on my part — a willingness to relinquish any concept of myself as an expert and to let my sources speak for themselves. My expertise comes in organizing and conveying the voices of all my sources as accurately and understandably as possible.

Empathy requires me to know something about the audience I’m writing for. What this audience is most interested in might not be the same thing that most interests my sources. Depending on the type of article I’m writing, I might have to spend some time educating my audience, but I can’t be overly didactic without losing their attention. Everyone is busy these days, and a multitude of information sources compete for my reader’s attention. I have to make it worth my reader’s time to read my writing. I have to show my readers something new or present a different point of view on something familiar. Some part of what I say has to be relevant to the world they inhabit.

I have to be trustworthy. If I come across as selling a particular point of view or advocating for a particular cause, I might capture the attention of those who already agree with me. But I will lose those readers who disagree with me — the very readers who might have an “aha!” moment or engage others in a constructive dialogue after having read my article. On the other hand, false balance is just as misleading as blind advocacy. On some issues (climate change is one notable example), the scientific consensus is so strong that giving equal weight to a small opposing minority is a distortion of the facts.

Trustworthiness also requires clarity. “Baffle them with bullshit” is not an acceptable approach here. Few intelligent readers come away convinced that because an issue is presented in dense technical prose, it must be important and correct. On the other hand, talking down to one’s readers, using lazy metaphors, or affecting a false hipness only makes the writer look incompetent. The goal is to convey a message and convey it well.

Conveying a message also requires an understanding that we are not completely rational beings. Two reasonably sane, intelligent, well-intentioned people can look at the same set of facts and draw very different conclusions. We all operate within our own social, historical, and experiential frameworks, and we interpret what we see accordingly. A good writer must provide enough context and perspective to inform, but not overwhelm, her readers.

Our emotions affect how we react to information, whether or not we are aware of it. Thus, humor, diplomacy, and yes, empathy are far more than ways to “spice up” an article. They are necessary elements in connecting with one’s audience and opening a space for dialogue — or perhaps drawing the lines for battle.

The work I enjoy best draws on all these skills, but some of my previous jobs have required a “just-the-facts” approach. For some purposes, that’s enough. An activity report for a government agency is not the right place to hone one’s skills in humorous narrative nonfiction. But since I have all of these skills, it’s up to me to find an outlet for them. Leave the cut-and-dried work to those who excel at it.

Lately, I’ve been exploring social media (FaceBook, Twitter, and the like) as a means of staying in touch with the people I’ve met through my travels, career, and various stages of my life. This has evolved into a means of conversing with people whom I have never met face-to-face, but with whom I share common interests and affinities. I’m exploring the nuances of brief written communications and asking myself how well it is possible to know another person through electronic interaction alone. Electronic communities are changing the way we understand friendship and the way information (or misinformation) spreads.

Increasingly, interest groups, businesses, and other organizations use these channels to shape what we think and how we talk to each other in ways that go far beyond the pop-up ads and “you might be interested in…” suggestions. Skilled communicators realize that this is where their audience is, and they seek out the people they want to reach in this way. Perhaps the entire message can be conveyed right there on the spot. Perhaps a brief note on Twitter alerts readers to a more detailed account elsewhere. Perhaps flinging an idea into the fray sparks a conversation or elicits a wealth of crowd-sourced information, an exchange of diverse points of view. In any case, it’s a matter of going out and engaging in dialogue with readers where they are rather than passively waiting in the backwaters of the information stream.

If this is so interesting to me in my personal interactions, why not investigate ways to build this into my profession as a science writer? After all, one of the reasons I took 2012 as a year off was to discover ways of integrating the various values and interests I have into a means of supporting myself while contributing something worthwhile to the world.

Signal to Noise Ratios

turn down the noise

Photo by Nancy McGuire

Back to the science metaphors today. I got to thinking about how radically I have emptied out my schedule this year, and how it’s helping me pay attention to things too long ignored. Improving the signal-to-noise ratio, as it were.

Right after grad school, I spent three years as a postdoc at Los Alamos National Lab. I was studying the way that surfaces influence the structure of thin coatings, to see if you could set up a surface that could direct a thin film to form with the properties you wanted. In order to pick up any kind of a signal at all on my instruments, I had to start out with substrate materials that had a whole lot of surface area, just to have enough of the thin film to make a detectable signal.

I had to make sure that the substrate surface was as clean as humanly possible, to eliminate interference from contaminants — including air. For every sample I made, I had to start by baking my substrate material at a high temperature, under vacuum. This required custom-built glass furnace tubes that had to be made in the lab’s glass shop, by the resident glass-working experts. My fellow researchers showed me how to set up the furnace and vacuum pump setup, and they clued me in on putting a cold trap between the two parts, so that pump oil would not back-flow into the furnace tube. They also told me that the copper coil I needed for this could be found at a local auto supply store.

After I baked out my samples, I had to close off the glass tube and transfer it to one of those big glove boxes that you may have seen on TV shows where people are working in a lab. The man in charge of keeping the glove box maintained had very large hands, so the gloves were sized to fit him. I have very small hands, so I had to learn to manipulate tiny tweezers and allen wrenches using thick rubber gloves that were several sizes too big for me.

Coating the sample surface was an exercise in patience. Meter in a little gas, let it condense onto the surface, wait for things to settle down, meter in a little more, repeat. Do this until the gas pressure gauge shows that no more gas is condensing down onto the surface. This sometimes took hours. Once, I tried to put two layers down on a surface, and I stayed at it for 36 hours straight before I finally gave up.

After I collected data from my instrument, I used a computer program (written by another colleague) to tease out the tiny signal from the thin film from the much larger signal from my supporting surface. Another computer program would interpret the resulting pattern, but the specific material I was studying hadn’t been studied much as a thin film, so I had to piece together what I could from existing information and make reasonable assumptions.

I did manage to put together a general picture of what the surfaces were doing to the thin films. It’s been almost 25 years, and others have gone much farther than this than I could.

What I’m getting at is this. In order to see anything at all out of this year-long experience of mine, I had to set up a situation in which I had a lot of time just for me — my supporting substrate surface. I had to clear out any interfering noise from this time — residual stress from a long day at work and commuting, much of my extracurricular activity, anything that would take away from what I’m trying to find. After the initial clearing-out, I had to protect my time from re-contamination. Only then could I begin to let in the things that I want to pay attention to.

I’m getting a lot of advice and assistance from friends and colleagues, but ultimately, I’m having to put this thing together myself. And now that little hints of answers are starting to come in, I’m having to try and make sense of what I’m finding out. Looking at what other people have done is giving me a general direction, but ultimately, I’m having to take what I can find and make some reasonable assumptions about the rest.

Very slowly, a little pattern is starting to emerge from the background. Other people may do this more elegantly or simply, but this is my project, and I am having to put together an answer that applies to me. The learning how to do it, the actual process of doing it, and the friends and mentors I’m meeting along the way are just as important (if not more so) than whatever answers I may come up with.

Reprinted from Flying Lessons blog, which I also write. (