Weirdly, this week’s Ask a ScienceBlogger question may be the hardest one to answer yet:
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?
Most of the responses have taken this as an “If you had it to do over, what sort of scientist would you be?”, and that’s the source of the problem. It’s not that the question itself is all that difficult– I actually have a stock answer for that. The problem is that I don’t really like the premise of the question (he says cryptically, promising to explain after the cut…).
The problem is the opening qualification: “Assuming that time and money were not obstacles.” That sort of assumes that time and money were a concern in choosing my current line of work, which is a bad assumption.
I spent six years in graduate school to get a Ph.D. in physics– that’s less time than many, to be sure, but a not inconsiderable chunk of time (a little more than 20% of my life when I graduated)– and another two years as a post-doc. Time was clearly not a major concern for me.
And money? Physics research is hardly a path to riches, and academic physics research even less so, and academic physics research at a liberal arts college? Don’t make me laugh. Money is nice, and all, but it’s not the main thing driving my career– if it was, I’d have to be a complete idiot to do what I do.
I do what I do because I enjoy it. I really love physics, and I think that AMO physics these days is one of the coolest scientific fields around. I enjoy experimental work, I like the fact that the systems I work with are relatively concrete, and I like the way it ties in to a bit of everything else. If I had it to do over, I’d probably end up doing the same sort of thing I’m doing now.
(That’s not the stock answer, by the way. The stock answer is that I would be a biologist studying coral reefs, or something like that. Some field where I could go snorkeling in the tropics and call it research.)
Of course, Kate points out that there’s another way to take the question, namely as “what would you pursue as a hobby, in addition to what you do now?” In which case, the answer would be something in astronomy or astrophysics. Which, OK, isn’t that far removed from my own discipline, but I’m not just a physicist by trade, I’m a physicist by temperment. I really don’t have the right sort of personality for anything in chemistry or biochemistry, let alone medicine– I like my research problems to have clear and conclusive answers, with the minimum possible number of qualifying factors. Any problem involving whole cells is just hopelessly muddled.
Astronomy and astrophysics are the things that originally drew me toward the physical sciences, and I continue to find that stuff really cool. I don’t understand it terribly well, though, and if I had infinite free time and no financial constraints, I’d like to learn more about it.