Pharyngula

Worst. Question. Ever.

I’ve been reluctant to answer the latest question from the Head Office, because it sucks. Nothing personal, but it just doesn’t work for me.

Assuming that time and money were not obstacles, what area of scientific research, outside of your own discipline, would you most like to explore? Why?

I’m sorry, but there is no interesting scientific research outside of my discipline. The evo and the devo are the way to go. If I were starting over, there are things I would do differently and skill sets I’d try to acquire that would give me a better handle on the research, but do something else? What? This is where the exciting questions are!

I suppose if I were cast out of Eden and forced to do something else, I’d…aw, heck. Nothing comes to mind. My father wanted me to do an apprenticeship in refrigerator repair, so I might as well do that. Good money, reasonable hours, paid vacations…I could use my free time after work to read the journals and sigh.

Comments

  1. #1 Canuckistani
    June 14, 2006

    Really, nothing? Given sufficient time and money, I’d study Bayesian statistics, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, cosmology, protein chemistry, hurricanes and tornadoes, sociology, and artificial organs. For starters.

  2. #2 BlueIndependent
    June 14, 2006

    If I could redo everything and take on a scientific discipline, I’d probably opt for photonic science, chemistry, or meteorology. My current position deals with a lot of highly technical chemistry and and photonic properties, so I am starting to take an interest in that, but I’ve always loved a great thunderstorm.

  3. #3 Jason
    June 14, 2006

    Egotistical as always, I see. Nothing interesting about climatology? Psychology? Cosmology? Forensic science? Come on. As a rabid environmentalist, isn’t there something related to that that you find interesting?

  4. #4 sixteenwords
    June 14, 2006

    Excellent answer, I thought…

    I could use my free time after work to read the journals and sigh.

    I get to work in a field I’m passionate about, and, yet, I use my free time to read scientific journals, science blogs and wonder what the path not taken would have led me too.

  5. #5 Sifu Tweety
    June 14, 2006

    But my professors keep telling me computational neuroscience is where all the exciting questions are!

    I’m confused.

  6. #6 Dan
    June 14, 2006

    Astrophysics and theoretical cosmology. All the way.

  7. #7 Chakolate
    June 14, 2006

    I once mentioned to mathematician and knot theorist Lou Kauffman that most people change careers four or five times during their lives, and that it was high time he did. On consideration, he said he thought he could be a romance novelist: it was easy, it paid well, and it would leave plenty of time. For what? says I. To do math, of course, says he.

  8. #8 Troutnut
    June 14, 2006

    Theoretical physicists, especially cosmologists, look for answers to the most interesting questions. But all but the most extremely brilliant people end up playing a small part in a large team working to answer very small parts of very difficult questions. It is noble work but it demands a personality that’s satisfied with doing a tremendous amount of difficult work to make a tiny increase in our knowledge. It would be great fun to be in that field as a revolutionary genius, a Hans Bethe or a Tommy Gold or a Stephen Hawking, but that option isn’t available to most of us.

    I started out on that path and ended up switching to theoretical ecology. It is much more fun; like evo-devo, it is a blossoming field full of exciting opportunities for new researchers, even graduate students, to make an exciting amount of progress.

    I am sort of surprised that PZ could not think of a long list of other sciences he would like to explore. I think for most scientists it is a little bit difficult to choose from all the interesting options, and even if we are happy with our choice we regret that we could not take up all the others simultaneously.

  9. #9 coturnix
    June 14, 2006

    But evo-devo is It! If it was not so close to what I am already doing, I would have picked evo-devo as my answer as well. I actually tried to get to do that but circumastances interfered. I love what I do, but evo-devo is the most exciting area of research in any science right now.

  10. #10 iant
    June 14, 2006

    If I were starting over, there are things I would do differently and skill sets I’d try to acquire that would give me a better handle on the research

    hi PZ. just curious, would you elaborate what on sort of skill sets you would have tried to aquire before pursuing evo-devo research? and also, what types of skills you feel are important for such research (that, perhaps, you already had).

  11. #11 Torbjörn Larsson
    June 14, 2006

    Worst question? I don’t know – I think the US only question a couple of weeks back was worst. Maybe PZ could advice his site masters that we noted a disturbance in the Force.

    Unfortunately you can’t really explore an area of scientific research without doing ‘it’. (Research, that is.) I read Troutnut, but currently I would love to explore theoretical physics. Next year, who knows?

  12. #12 Torbjörn Larsson
    June 14, 2006

    Umm. Not that a year would be enough if it really happened. I meant, if the same question reappears next year.

  13. #13 Jonathan Badger
    June 14, 2006

    PZ — actually, to what level do you get to do research on anything now? As you are a professor at a four-year liberal arts school, isn’t most of your (non-blogging) time taken up by teaching? And isn’t getting research done without an army of serfs…er grad students, difficult? I ask because all of my experience has been at large research universities where the faculty have rather limited teaching loads and spend most of their time in the labs.

  14. #14 Michael Bains
    June 14, 2006

    Dude! You’d do what I do* if you didn’t do what you do!

    That’s so cool!

    Hmmm… I really wanna do what you do instead o’ what I do do**. I just gotta stop wastin’ time lookin’ for love ‘n’ marriage, and start spending time (and money!) rekindlin’ my love for sociological research.


    *Substituting ‘fridges with PCs.
    ** Scatological pun intended.

  15. #15 PZ Myers
    June 14, 2006

    Most of my training was in neuroscience, and I just drifted towards the interesting questions in the development of the brain. From there, I gravitated towards an interest in more general problems in evo-devo. I could use more experience in molecular biology and developmental genetics. And yeah, I’m at a school that emphasizes teaching, and I rely on undergraduates to do a lot of the work, which slows down everything…but that doesn’t change my interests.

  16. #16 Steve LaBonne
    June 14, 2006

    Having spent some time at a good liberal arts college that expects faculty to be active in research, I can testify that while it’s not easy- and you do well to focus on questions that are a little outside of the rapidly-moving mainstream so you can move at a slower pace without constantly being scooped- you can get some surprisingly neat stuff done. If you can get a technician salary on your grant that helps immensely. (Another good strategy is collaborating with a nearby university group, which can also provide great experiences for your students. Might be a difficult option in an isolated place like Morris, though, so I imagine that’s not the direction PZ has gone.) Even at research universities grad students tend not to get fully up to speed until fairly close to the end of their training, and a good tech can be worth 2 or 3 grad students in terms of productivity. Postdocs of course are great too (and unlikely but not impossible to have at a liberal arts college)but junior faculty at reasearch universities find it hard to attract the really good ones until they have tenure and some visibility in their field. My sister, the real scientist in my family (about to go up for tenure at Northwestern, and pretty much sure to make it because she’s done quite well)has relied heavily on good techs.

    The good and perhaps surprising part of being at a college like PZ’s is that you tend to spend more time actually working at the bench yourself (particularly in the summmer)than do university faculty who inevitably become essentially administrators and grant-writers of a research group. (The lore of quite a few labs includes funny stories about the time the boss actually tried to do something at the bench…)

  17. #17 gregorach
    June 14, 2006

    I’m sorry, but there is no interesting scientific research outside of my discipline.

    I simply can’t believe you said that, PZ. No interesting research outside of evo-devo? Absolutely none? I have real difficulty believing that you have such a narrow mind. Remember, the question did say “assuming time and money were not obstacles”, which implies that you have enough time to concentrate as much as you want on your main gig as well. Are you really saying that you have absolutely no interest whatsoever in any other area of science?

    I mean, personally, I’m interested in practically everything. If time and money weren’t an issue, I can’t think of a single area of science (or history or culture for that matter) I wouldn’t be interested in. The only problem I’d have with that question would be choosing an answer…

  18. #18 Alon Levy
    June 14, 2006

    Assuming that time and money were not obstacles, what area of scientific research, outside of your own discipline, would you most like to explore? Why?

    Political science, because of its relevance to my relatively newfound interest in punditry and activism.

    If it has to be a hard science, then something in theoretical physics, preferably a kind that relies a lot on math – say, cosmology.

  19. #19 melior
    June 14, 2006

    Uhoh, now you sound like one of those professors who’s convinced their final exam is the most important!

  20. #20 PZ Myers
    June 14, 2006

    now you sound like one of those professors who’s convinced their final exam is the most important!

    You can’t possibly think it isn’t!

  21. #21 Charlie Wagner
    June 14, 2006

    Paul wrote:

    “If I were starting over, there are things I would do differently…”

    Imagine that you started over in a world that had never heard of Charles Darwin or darwinism, Imagine that you had to look at all the evidence in an unbiased and open-minded way, making your judgements on sound empirical evidence, supported by observation and experimentation.
    Do you suppose you would reach the same conclusions that you advocate today?

  22. #22 jbark
    June 14, 2006

    I would think that merely looking at a baby chimpanzee would be enough to set one on the right track.

  23. #23 Steve LaBonne
    June 14, 2006

    jbark, I’ve been mystified by exactly that for years- how parents could take their toddlers to the zoo and fail to notice the family resemblance is beyond me.

  24. #24 Charlie Wagner
    June 14, 2006

    Reminds me of an old Flip Wilson routine:

    “Lots of crazy things happen in traveling. Just last week I was on a train. There was a woman traveling with a baby. UGLY baby ! I mean, I’m not one to make comments about anyone’s kid — but this was an UGLY baby. A guy walks down the train — he’s half smashed — and he stops. And he stares. And the lady says “What are you looking at?” The guy says “I’m looking at that ugly baby.” A scene ensues, whereupon the conductor arrives. He says “What’s going on here?” The woman says “This man just insulted me!” The conductor says “Now calm down Madam, calm down. We here at the railroad want to make sure that there are no altercations between our passengers and that everyone’s trip is as relaxing as possible. Accordingly, if you allow us, please step into the dining car and the railroad will buy you a free meal.
    And maybe we can find a banana for your monkey.”

    HaHaHa!!!

  25. #25 XavierGNZ
    June 15, 2006

    Ok, Evo Devo is very cool. But what about something like spending years in a Papuan rainforest categorising biodiversity, undertaking phylogenetic analyses on never seen before tree frogs or finding a species of bird thought to be extinct? The question doesn’t preclude going back to Evo Devo later on if you wanted, just what else would you like to do, if funding and time were not limiting factors? There has to be something…

  26. #26 Torbjörn Larsson
    June 15, 2006

    “Imagine that you had to look at all the evidence in an unbiased and open-minded way, making your judgements on sound empirical evidence, supported by observation and experimentation.
    Do you suppose you would reach the same conclusions that you advocate today?”

    OT but answerable. It’s somewhat like asking what would happen if evolution replayed itself on Earth. The difference is of course that science is much more restrained by the observations and thus the theories we can do.

    No, the amount and quality of data and theories would differ. For example, not exactly the same fossils would be found.

    But science would find the same general theories of course. Our data and our theories are robust, since nature are.

    If you knew anything about the area you should know that. Or do you believe theories are merely free inventions, say from certain religious viewpoints?

  27. #27 tus
    February 24, 2008

    pz, i wish i had your single field desire.

    i have a hard time because i love EVERY field with a passion, i cant chose one. i wish i could live forever so i could study them all.
    and not just science either, engineering, computer science (ok, that is a science…it says so in the name), foreign languages, computer languages, martial arts, everything but automotives…because i hate cars.

    maybe if i didnt love so many fields, i could dedicate myself to just one.

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