Things I wish I knew/did earlier in grad school

  • Keep a journal of every research-related idea you have and every research-related action you take. Seriously, find the most frictionless way you can keep notes and stick to it. Your brain will thank you later.
  • Ask for help whenever possible, but with the knowledge that many of the issues you have will have no troubleshooting manual.
  • Crude, hacked together and done is better than perfect and never finished.
  • Work when you feel productive. Sleep when you feel less productive. Use the benefits of being a self-scheduled researcher to your advantage.
  • Don’t feel guilty to be involved in grad student life and service. These activities give a mission and direction to your research.
  • Take on a mentee. It is such a massive boost to your own productivity to take charge of managing and encouraging another less experienced person’s work. It will push you to practice what you preach.
  • Make sure your family and loved ones know what you do and what is expected of you, so they aren’t upset when you aren’t free to talk or have to work a late night.
  • Don’t hold on to the paper you’re working on too long. Chances are that there is someone out there doing a similar project based on an idea that they had at the same time as you, and you don’t want to get scooped.
  • If someone more experienced than you who you respect disagrees with your findings, that doesn’t mean you’re wrong.
  • Don’t be afraid to overhaul a project you have based on new information. This is the stage of your career when you are not invested in a theory or particular method. You can quickly change tack to use new analyses and pursue new research questions with little or no cost. Your committee will understand.
  • NEVER show off how much you work. We all work a ton (yes, you do too, don’t let that impostor syndrome get you) and there is no need to hero-worship based on how many hours we work a week.

No Man’s Sky: An Environmentalist’s Review

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Approaching a beautiful lake-filled green planet, which unfortunately turned out to be covered with hostile robots.

I’m entering the atmosphere of this planet in full knowledge that I don’t have the fuel to lift off again. Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue, but the weather strongly tends towards acid rain and the average temperature is well above 150°F. So when I’m landed, I’m going to have to be quick about harvesting some plutonium (an odd choice for fuel considering its rarity on Earth) to use for my ship’s launch thrusters. When I get out to do so, my life support systems immediately begin using power and I realize my harvesting tool is low on juice as well. I could easily die here, alone and hundreds of light years from the nearest real-life human.

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My home base, on a frozen lake on the tundra planet I call home. One of the strange hog-faced, antlered bipedal herbivores is in the foreground.

The main enemy in No Man’s Sky is scarcity. Everything from your space-suit’s life support systems to the hyperdrive you use to travel between planets requires some amount of resources to power and repair. Most planets are not friendly in conditions. They can be frozen to -200 degrees, or +200 or both in a day. Windstorms and acid rain can sap away at your suit’s life support systems. You are truly subservient to the environment in No Man’s Sky.

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Weird hopping pineapple creature in the foreground in this strange fungus-dominated toxic world, where acid rain quickly sapped my suit’s life support systems.

There is a stunning variety of animal and plant life present in the game. All environments and the inhabitants thereof are generated by an algorithm, meaning that the game’s creators can’t be fully aware of all the billions of worlds existing in their fictional galaxy. I have seen flying worms, giant predatory dinosaur-like creatures that chase me on sight, and what can only be described as a hopping pineapple. Each planet is its own ecosystem. Most creatures are uninterested or fearful of you, though a few do seem to chase me or attack in defense. Some attack each other.

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A creature reminding me of a terror bird on a burning hot desert planet.

To be fair, the ecosystems are somewhat limited. I have yet to see truly giant trees rivaling the redwoods of my own real-life planet. I haven’t seen icebergs or glaciers, because each planet only has one real biome. There are no ice-caps or climate differences on each world, which is disappointing, but typical in science fiction (think Hoth or Tatooine from Star Wars). I haven’t seen a running river, which would likely be too computationally expensive to generate. All oceans and lakes seem to be static at a certain sea level. There are no differences in gravity between worlds, most likely to simplify gameplay. Star systems have planets and moons are not to realistic scale, with planets and moons far closer than they should be, probably for visual effect.

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Triceratops-like creature and a weird tubby feathered animal, with a crashed freighter in the background.

Some of the design limitations are interesting from an environmental perspective. There are orbiting space stations, but no cities to speak of. The sparse planetary settlements have at most a few inhabitants in a few buildings. Did the civilization of this fictional galaxy suffer some calamity which decimated its population? Or did they make a conscious decision to spread out and dismantle their cities in subservience to environmental preservation? Perhaps No Man’s Sky is the most extreme manifestation of the Kuznets curve. As human societies mature and living situations improve, their policies begin to value conservation and public health instead of economic growth.

In this way, the civilization of No Man’s Sky has achieved a near-environmental utopia. The player’s actions, however are interesting in their persistence. When you destroy a plant or harvest resources, they do not return. The changes that you make are truly persistent, and the game does not fill back in the gaps. As I rode my buggy over the surface of my own planet, I felt a twinge of regret running over the strange coral-like creatures in the warm canyons between stretches of tundra, because they will not regenerate.

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Remnants of a disbanded city? This world was a frozen archipelago with a yellow sky.

No Man’s Sky has been heavily criticized by many players, who felt it didn’t live up to the hype it received before release. Several updates have been added to improve the core gameplay and story in the last year. Regardless of the improvements of the game itself, I find the concept and environmental ideas in the game to be engrossing. As a real-life naturalist, the experience of exploration and nature-watching in a game is also fun, with the added novelty of knowing that every creature I see has likely never been observed before.

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A modern settlement, in harmony with nature.