Science and hard work: II

A sergeant in the rangers, on patrol in Afghanistan works hard;
so do nurses, deep sea fishermen, coal miners, sole proprietor restaurant startups.

They guys who painted my house this summer worked outside, 10 hour days, physical labour at half my pay. They worked hard.

I’ve worked hard.
In the overall scheme of things, science is not hard work.

But, there were days this summer when I’d come home, having done nothing but thinking and tinkering with equations, and little bit of paperwork, but I would be more tired, and far more frustrated, than the guys who’d been working non-stop in 90 degree heat doing physically hard and dangerous work.

Someone who did a full combat tour in the light infantry may find it “harder” to figure out a homework set in differential geometry, than it was to fight through a Taliban ambush at 6000 feet in winter.
Trying to understand the information paradox for quantum black holes may leave you more exhausted than a half marathon and 200 push ups.

I’m a career academic; as with most Icelanders of my generation, I spent most of my summers as a teenager doing manual labour.
I spent one summer in a fish processing factory; I processed dried fish, frozen fish and fresh fish. On conveyor belts, pallets and racks. It stank, we worked 10-12 hour days, 6 days a week. The pay was excellent and you could see immediate results of your work. We were feeding people. It was hard work.

I spent three summers as hydrologist, including field work. It was technical work, one of my responsibilities was numerical integration of flow fields; I worked on software and calibration.
I also spent weeks up in the mountains, building and tending stations, hiking, drilling, blasting, wading rivers. We did 11 days in country, 3 days in town, rotations. My time sheet showed over 100 hours of time per week, for several weeks in a row. On double/triple overtime. Our work laid the grounds for large, controversial billion dollar projects that will determine economic paths for entire regions of a nation for decades. At the end of the summer I was totally refreshed and ready for any minor crap a double Math Phys BSc major could throw at me. It was hard work.

I was a graduate student at Caltech.
We hung out in the sun, played “beerball” (softball, where you get a beer if you get a base hit) and soccer. We bullshitted over burritos and diet pepsi; late night runs of chili fries; went swimming, had all night parties and lounged reading science fiction paperbacks and arguing about the axiom of choice and the future of space exploration.
I also worked on graduate class work and the research projects until my eyes bled. On a couple of occasions, in particular leading into finishing the thesis, and early on when I overloaded on classes, including taking what was the last class Feynman taught, I honestly thought I had finally encountered work so hard I would not be able to do it. I did. It was hard work. Possibly the hardest I ever did.
It was not physically hard work. A lot of the time people would have looked at me and said I was not actually doing anything, I was just sitting staring into space or at a computer screen.
I was trying to understand conceptually very hard issues, I was assimilating an enormous amount of information, and I was trying to figure out new things that not only had never been done before, but which were possibly not actually solvable.
It is very very difficult to do.

There is a paradox here: other people work harder than scientists, they do tasks that are more arduous, that are more time consuming, that are physically harder, that are far grodier, that may be less rewarding, they may not be doable – a doctor looking to cure a patient may be facing an impossible task, for example.
But still science is perceived as very hard, and frustrating.
It is technically hard, more so for most people – my understanding is that a lot of people find even routine tasks in science to be actually impossible, even when they are problems that have known and simple solutions.
Science is also enormously satisfying at a visceral level when it works out – you get to figure out or discover something no one on Earth had ever done before (well, except maybe for an obscure Russian genius in the early 70s, but it was classified and lost…).

So there’s the answer. Science is innately conceptually hard, because of the skill level involved and because it often is attempting something where not only do not know how to do it, it may not be possible to do it. But compared to other things people do, using different metrics of “hardness”, science is not hard at all.

I would also say, that despite the enormous career difficulties in science, the lack of professional opportunities and advancement, there is also a labour shortage in science – that is to say there is both not enough funding to do even the obvious tasks we know urgently ought to be done; and, there is also not the pool of talent available to do the tasks if the funding were available.
If I got 20 times my current funding, I could not find 20 times the number of students and postdocs with the skill to do tackle the problems I think need to be done. Double the funding and I could double the work rate, increase it an order of magnitude and we would have to spend it in a qualitatively different way, at least over the next decade while supply ramped up, hopefully, in response to a heavy demand.

PS if people really understood how small the number of people actually doing new research is, they’d be terrified. And I am not talking about blue sky hunts for black holes and new fundamental particles; I mean people doing device physics, and materials, and genetics and organic chemistry.
The production rate of researchers is miniscule, and the number of people per field who are actually on the frontline doing the research is laughably small.


  1. #1 Chris
    July 27, 2006

    Interesting post.

    As a bit of a non sequitur, I’d say that your comment about funding is funny, in a way, because as I understand it, that’s exactly what happened in the early 90′s. The NIH budget increased dramatically, and suddenly, there was a great shortage of students/trained techs, etc. (just as you described). As a result, a lot of that money was used to build up the infrastructure that has brought progressively more students into the biomedical sciences.

    Fast forward to the present, where suddenly funding has leveled off and we’re faced with the opposite problem. Too many grad students were accepted into the sciences, and there simply aren’t enough faculty positions and jobs to go around. This leads to career post-docs (with shitty pay) and people dropping out of research left and right to find other work. This makes the job outlook crappy and will discourage people from choosing science as a profession.

    So yes, it’s natural that the system is self correcting, but it sure does suck to be a grad student or post doc right now.

  2. #2 Steinn Sigurdsson
    July 28, 2006

    Yeah, feast-then-famine cycles in sub-fields of science are very damaging.
    Typically funding peaks too rapidly as some sexy new topic is chased, the research is ineffective because too many people rush in with too little training and thought, then it plateaus or declines just as the pool of talent has finally caught up with the demand, and all the new people surging into the field are slammed with cuts and flushed out.
    This happens on ~ decadal cycle in physical sciences and is part of the damaging reputation of poor career prospects and high uncertaint.
    ‘Course of you time it right and catch the wave, you’re set.