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.

Comments

  1. #1 Georg
    June 13, 2006

    I would have thought that that question was obviously intended to mean “Assuming you had an infinite amount of spare time (so ‘it would take too long to learn the basics of that field’ is not a valid excuse) and unlimited spending money (so ‘nobody would fund me to do that kind of thing’ is not a valid excuse), what area of scientific research, outside of your own discipline, would you most like to explore?”

  2. #2 chezjake
    June 13, 2006

    I submitted the original question to ScienceBlogs, and I’ll admit that I probably didn’t word it as well as I might have. However, Kate and Georg have more or less arrived at my original intention — given the time and money, what science outside your specialty would you pursue just for curiosity or pleasure?

    I was educated in the biomedical sciences and have had no formal coursework in geology, but would love the opportunity to explore plate tectonics and continent building.

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    June 13, 2006

    Ah.
    My apologies for misinterpreting the question.

    (Of course, the other problem with the question is that it assumes that I’d spend my free time on more science, as opposed to blogging or reading novels, or whatever else…)

  4. #4 Dave Munger
    June 14, 2006

    I like the fact that these questions are often somewhat ambiguously worded, thus giving us the opportunity to offer “creative” responses. When a question is more straightforward / factual, I’m less likely to answer at all.

  5. #5 Rob Knop
    June 14, 2006

    If time and money weren’t obstacles, I’d be much less stressed about being an astronomer…. I’d have funding for my grad student, I’d have funding to take on a second grad student (but I’d never want to have more than two, although I guess if time weren’t an obstacle…). I wouldn’t be depressed at reading the reviews of grant proposals turned down, I’d be able to freely travel to all the conferences and observing runs that struck my whim. With the time thing, I’d be able to do the six or eight different research projects I am interested in but never have enough time to pursue, *and* (which would be closer to the question) I’d join the partical physics group at Vandy as an outrider, not in the core of the group (for big group politics drive me nuts), but as a guy on the side mucking about with particle physics data.

    Plus, I’d teach two or three courses each semester in addition to doing all of that extra research, because I like teaching, and there are more things I’d like to be teaching.

    All fantasy.

    If you were asking the question: what area of science fascinates me, but not as much as astronomy (since astronomy is #1, and that’s why I do it), I’d say either high-energy theory (which I may not be smart enough for), but also, farther afield, cognitive psychology. When the high-E theory group’s journal club asked us all to write down on a slip of paper the most interesting challenge facing science in the next several decades, I wrote “what is the nature of human consciousness?” How people think, and the odd things that our cobbled-together minds and brains do, is fascinating to me, but I don’t really spend much serious time on it.

    -Rob

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