The Best Parts of the Scientific Life

(From a previous entry on my old blog)

After having written about the worst, why not write about the best things about science? Here goes:

1 - Discovery. One of the greatest feelings I've ever had as a researcher was peering down at the microscope and seeing something that I know has never been seen in the history of mankind. It's funny, the first thing you want to do is ... tell somebody. When my thesis advisor discovered that cells have different types of microtubules (a truly unexpected finding) it was the middle of the night. Apparently, he rushed off to explain the big discovery to the only other person in the floor at that time, a janitor. Science literally means standing at the edge of knowledge ... and looking beyond. What a thrill.

2 - Discussion. One great part of Science is that scientists love talking about ideas. I never tire of speaking to fellow scientists - we are a very curious group. It reminds me of this quote I once heard (I'm not sure of the source):

"People of high intelligence talk about ideas...
People of average intelligence talk about things...
People of no intelligence talk about other people!"

Although in my opinion I would substitute "intelligence" with "curiosity". There is a bias that scientists are a very reclusive and unsociable group. I would strongly disagree. We are constantly discussing and exchanging ideas - and the freedom to explore, invent and analyze ideas within the scientific forum is unlike anything else I've ever experienced. Due in part to this type of social interaction, I believe that scientists are trained to be very clear and CAREFUL thinkers. But more importantly, a good scientist makes careful assumptions. This is the difference between Darwin and say Freud ... or Marx. Many non-scientists have this strange habit of not checking their assumptions. In the course of analyzing the world around them, this type of error magnifies itself and leads these individuals to strange and often erroneous interpretations of phenomena. As a scientist I often question non-scientists' assumptions and sometimes find that they confuse this line of inquiry as an attack on their ego (although many scientists also fall into this category - see "worst things about science", item #8). So as a summary I would say that good scientists love discussion and are non-judgmental in what they discuss (as long as the discussion is about ideas!), but scientists are judgmental in how they discuss ideas. This is where many non-scientists could learn from scientists.

3 - Creativity. Good scientists are very creative. Think of it, you are at the cutting edge of knowledge, you read the scientific literature, there is a problem you would like to address, and then you ask (hopefully) a very insightful question, and come up with a model of how nature works. What to do next? Well you want to test your model ... usually by performing experiments, while covering all your bases (i.e. with appropriate controls). But of course you can't perform the "perfect experiment", because you are limited by the current technology. What to do? Most scientist use the latest techniques ... but the best scientists modify these techniques slightly to perform innovative experiments that are closer to the "dream experiment".

If you've managed to invent a really good technique that is capable of addressing a particular type of question, this is referred to as an assay. Working out the bugs of an assay is hard and can take a long time, but once the assay is up and running, you can collect tons of data in very short time spans. In addition, you've become the world's expert at this novel technique. Great scientists always come up with innovative assays, and then use the assay to gain new insights into old problems. Even better than that is to use an assay to address problems that people haven't even begun to think about. I love this part of science - call it MacGuyverism.

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I've always been dreaming of becoming a scientist but it always seemed so far off - like impossible to be achieved. But now that I'm doing my Cambridge A levels, it doesn't seem that impossible at all.

Hopefully I'll be able to experience all those great parts of the scientific life myself... One day.

Oh, my! Your extensive arguments AGAINST the scientific life seem so overwhelming compared to those FOR.

Do "discovery" and "creativity" trigger some sort of neural pleasure centers that override the overwhelmingly negative features you outlined?

Polly

[Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart--Anne Frank]

By Polly Anna (not verified) on 16 Mar 2006 #permalink

All I will say is that the number one, two and three reasons I love science vastly overwhelm all the things I hate.

It would be hard for anything to top the feeling of discovery.

Yes discovery. It's great, that is until you've discovered that you've been scooped!

Perhaps there are fewer items on the bright side of science, but they're worth it IMHO. Again if the thrill of discovery isn't good enough then you know that basic science ain't for you.

Speaking of basic research, how about for #4 - cure diseases. Okay it doesn't happen often, but ...

By Acme Scientist (not verified) on 16 Mar 2006 #permalink

Polly: As far as pleasure goes, think of it the same way you might think about something you're passionate about. Say for instance you're a mountain climber. Setting aside all the money spent on equipment, there are plenty of bad things about mountaineering. It requires training, strength, and lots of practice. It's also dangerous. Even if you have great technical skill, there's still nature to contend with: falling rocks, blizzards, avalanches, etc. People die every year in mountaineering-related accidents, and yet every year thousands of people gear up and head out for the mountains.

Why would anyone want to intentionally endure those kinds of hardships? I'm not a mountain climber, but I'm willing to bet that reaching the summit of mountain holds for a mountaineer the same thrill and sense of achievement that scientists feel when they make a discovery. It's about passion. All the effort and frustration that went into accomplishing the goal is worth it just for that experience.

There may be fewer items, but in the end they're far more compelling. This is a great summary of the reasons I enjoy being a scientist. Thanks for posting it, Alex.