Some Notes on Pleasure and Science

On the syllabus, I listed some questions for consideration when analyzing the readings for this week:

Why might women want to become scientists or engineers? Would their possible motivations differ from, or be in addition to, things that might make men want to become scientists or engineers?

I tried to keep these questions in mind as I wrote my discussion pieces for this week. If they inspire you for any of your comments, that's cool. The discussion piece will appear in several posts, as I find I am too wordy for one post.

And in that regard, let me just say that the professor has got some nerve, assigning so much reading and expecting this much work for a zero credit course at the Blogiversity. I'm going to complain to the dean. Katherine, are you listening???

I thought it would be fun to launch the discussion with some musings on pleasure and science. The first is from an interesting little tome called Science and Human Values by J. Bronowski, first published in 1956. My copy was reprinted by Harper and Row in 1965, but it's still available today from Amazon. I made a few changes to the quote below to make the language more'll see words in brackets where I made changes.

What a scientist does is compounded of two interests: the interest of [one's] time and [one's] own interest. In this [the scientist's] behavior is no different from any other [person's]. The need of the age gives its shape to scientific progress as a whole. But it is not the need of the age which gives...individual scientist[s] [their] sense of pleasure and of adventure, and that excitement which keeps [them] working late into the night...[Scientists are] personally involved in [their] work as the poet is in [theirs], and as the artist is in the painting. Paints and painting too must have been made for useful ends; and language was developed, from whatever beginnings, for practical communication. Yet you cannot have a [person] handle paints or language or the symbolic concepts of physics, you cannot even have [them] stain a microscope slide, without instantly waking in [them] a pleasure in the very language, a sense of exploring [their] own activity. This sense lies at the heart of creation...The sense of personal exploration is as urgent, and as delightful, to the practical scientist as to the theoretical. Those who think otherwise are confusing what is practical with what is humdrum.

The second quote is from Joolya who writes Naked Under My Labcoat:

I want my friends and mentors to be proud of me. I want to do well so that I get to sit up late at the grown-ups table, with all those exciting beloved scientists, as one of them. Sometimes I get so enraptured, it all gets tangled up together: discovery, intellectual connection, gossip, flirtation, karaoke, stupid raunchy biochemistry puns ... and I'm on a cloud. Like in Utah when the bar closed and we all went to my lab-mate's room and talked for hours. Like in first year at all those retreats when we were the princes and princesses of the world, and every possibility beckoned, and the future was a shining silver train track heading toward the sun. Like when we giggled to think of dancing with each other some distant days and our students would laugh at us, but we would know. The feeling of belonging to something great and good and important: We are! We are! We are!

Before the ennui set in.

He said, You students have it so good, you have nothing to worry about right now. It's so true - at every stage it gets harder and harder, compounding responsibility upon responsibility. One has to live for those moments of congruence, the little flashes of insight. It's - to me, anyway - akin to a sexual thrill. Sometimes I get so excited at a talk or reading a paper that I have to stop my mind from spinning away up into the sky. Sadly, that hasn't happened for a while. I need the paracrine stimulation of the shiny clever people, clever people with cool beers and cool ideas. Symposia, retreats - what are they but people squirting intellectual growth factors at each other? I love that. More to the point, I need those growth factors to survive here.

So it's not just the finding of the answers that compel me to do this silly thing, it's the company. Maybe my motives for being here aren't scientifically pure, but whose are?

Bronowski's metaphors conjure up, in my mind, a more solitary vision of the scientist as singular artist, whereas Joolya's metaphor is quite clearly interactive and involves, depends upon, other people. But both writers are talking about the joy of science. Bronowski says you cannot even begin to handle the tools of science without awakening the sense of pleasure in the task and the exploration. Joolya mentions the stimulation of conversation and interaction with other scientists. Both Bronowski and Joolya are quite clear that this pleasure is very personal and, in a sense, selfish: "it is not the need of the age which gives...individual scientist[s] [their] sense of pleasure and of adventure" - "[its] akin to a sexual thrill". Ah, when it's working well, it's soooo good. Those are the moments we live for, no?

Do we fall in love with science? What happens when science - or the culture of science - doesn't love us back?

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Joolya puts it so beautifully. I'm loving this course, although shirking nearly all of the homework.

It seems almost indelicate even for us to talk about the thrill - so how do we awaken it in others?

Would [women's] possible motivations differ from, or be in addition to, things that might make men want to become scientists or engineers?

I can't think of any such differences. Everyone I know in STM is there mainly because of a mixture -- the proportions vary from individual to individual -- of an overdeveloped curiosity bump, a desire to make the world a better place and an overweening sense of superiority based on having somewhat better-than-average wetware.

What happens when science - or the culture of science - doesn't love us back?

We either quit, or we start puking on shoes.

Actually, there's a third option, and I think it's where most scientists end up: we plod along, not doing very well professionally, more and more miserable personally, but unable to rid ourselves of the sense that if we quit we will have failed. We'd be better off elsewhere, and science as it stands would be better off without us, so this is an entirely unhealthy option. Best to quit or fight.

(I choose to fight -- not least because I am just plain ornery, but also because I think that science as it stands is vastly inefficient.)

"Katherine, are you listening???"

Uh, is this directed at me? I don't get it.

By Katherine (not verified) on 23 Jun 2009 #permalink

Hmm, at this distance of two years, I'm not sure I do anymore either. I suspect I was directing that comment at Katherine Sharpe, who at that time was in charge of all things Scienceblogs. Although even that doesn't make sense to me anymore.

Serves me right for not checking the date of the post. I definitely wasn't here 2 years ago, I'm not sure I even knew what a blog was then. I search for my name on blogs to check for replies to comments I've made, that's how I found this.

By Katherine (not verified) on 24 Jun 2009 #permalink