Mixing it up

Back in December last year, I had an idea that piqued my interest. I was frustrated with the rhetoric around recent extremes in Australia. The persistent heat of the previous few years was often dismissed as meaningless.

For example, during the record-breaking spring temperatures in Australia in 2013, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said,the thing is that at some point in the future, every record will be broken, but that doesn’t prove anything about climate change. It just proves that the longer the period of time, the more possibility of extreme events.”

 I was frustrated! This was fundamentally flawed!

I was well aware that the extreme heat over Australia during these recent years was unusually clustered together, while cold extremes had gone AWOL. Beyond this, Abbott’s argument juts didn’t make sense statistically.

I wanted to quantify this discrepancy between hot and cold extremes as a communication tool. To start, I downloaded a bunch of Australian temperature data, jumped in to some calculations and wrote up a blog post. Then I changed my mind and re-wrote it as a piece for The Conversation. I pitched it to the editor and we went about re-working it.

And then things stalled. I found an error in my preliminary calculations. I had trouble the locating additional data I needed. I lost confidence in the precise number I had calculated.

A decision was made. Together with my trusty editor, I decided that the only course of action was to put the piece on the back burner while I wrote it up and put it through the scrutiny of peer review.

Last week, my paper was published (with the help of an ongoing collaborator and superstar in his own right) in a peer-reviewed journal. This week, my long-dormant Conversation article was revived and revised.

This was an interesting subversion of my usual research processes. Typically my ideas for a new study will come from various sources.

  • They might be seeded by frustrations at unanswered questions of the previous paper I’ve written.
  • Or occasionally they might be prompted by something seen or said at a conference that didn’t seem quite right or sufficiently explanatory.
  • Or they might be sparked by interesting conversations with colleagues.

Only after an early, vague idea has been investigated, written up, peer-reviewed and accepted will I start to think about communicating the results.

My recent paper was a nice switch up to these usual research processes. This time an idea based around science communication prompted me to delve into an interesting scientific research question about the statistics of record temperatures.

It was fun to mix it up a little and get inspired from a different direction. I get bored easily. I’m bored of an analysis before I’ve started. And then I’m bored of a paper half way through writing it. I like to jump around and try new things.

This serendipitous approach was a good way to do this. I’m going to keep an open mind about how I go about research and keep an eye out for inspiration. Let’s hope it will keep my short attention span occupied!


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