Why Are We Scientists?

Feb 13 2009 Published by under Conduct of Science

Ambivalent Academic has an interesting post up in which she discusses the details of her ambivalent--love/hate--relationship to science. One of the things she loves about science is the "pure pursuit of truth/knowledge/information":

Science, in it's purest form, is a way of knowing. There are other ways to approach what we do not understand about life, the universe, whathaveyou. They also have value. But science is somewhat unique in that it precludes a particular background or set of beliefs. It requires only the ability to observe, to ask questions, and to design and conduct tests that determine the answer to those questions within the rules of logic.

While a common stereotype of scientists is of unemotional nerds with clipboards and thick glasses, AA points out that scientists are, by necessity, driven by passion:

I don't think that fame and fortune are primary motivators for people who go into academic science. I think it's a passion for discovery, the chance to do something that no one has done before, the pursuit of truth using a set of rules that is universally inclusive of anyone who wants to join the game.

One of my most vivid memories of grad school was late one night in the microscope room. I had been working feverishly for months to try to develop a reagent that would allow me to visualize in tissue a protein I had discovered. I peered into the scope, saw my protein in bright fluorescent color for the first time and exclaimed "Holy fucking fuck!!!!"
It was totes awesome!!!! I went running around the building trying to find someone to share the thrill with, and ended up dragging the janitor--a buddy of mine--into the room and forced him to look in the scope. That feeling is what we are all chasing.

39 responses so far

  • Dave says:

    I am totally there with you, DM. I too remember running around buildings trying to find someone -- anyone -- to tell about a result. Discovery is total crack. I'd do anything for that hit (and often do). What other class of professional whores themselves out for years just to get into the business, and then endures regular beatings (from reviewers) just to keep in the game? God forbid anyone actually came up with a cure for addiction. Modern professional science would collapse.

  • juniorprof says:

    damn straight. I still generally call my Mom. She has no idea what I am talking about but she loves getting to share the moment.

  • Wow, I really love your story. Definitely re-motivated me at the start of a slow Friday in lab.

  • Coturnix says:

    Question: why do all the cool discoveries always happen at 4am? They do, they do.

  • jc says:

    Bora, ain't that the goddamn truth! I'll bet daedalus will say it has something to do with NO levels. At 4am, I usually have no idea of the time, but it never really seemed like "work" anyway and there's never been a better time to be fascinated by something.

  • scicurious says:

    Posted on the other blog as well: I have been known to graph some GORGEOUS data, and when I see how beautiful it is, start dancing around the room singing “i’m a scientist, it’s your birthday, i’m a scientist”. The lab accepts this without question.

  • BKProf says:

    Yes! There is nothing like the joy of FIGURING THINGS OUT. When I was a kid I was enamored of big 1000 or 2000 piece jigsaw puzzles. I knew them in detail, so much so that if anyone else in the family dared to fit in a piece or two, I would notice it, become irritated, and remove the offending piece(s) because I wanted to be the person who FIGURED OUT THE PUZZLE. Of course, this personality bent is helpful in all aspects of scientific pursuits. I even really enjoy writing grants because that process is the act of me making a blueprint for how I will FIGURE THINGS OUT.
    People who don't get to have this experience don't know what they're missing.

  • Wow - my name's on the DrugMonkey blog! Scratch all that stuff I said about not being motivated by fame and fortune - this made my week. (just kidding).

  • Arikia says:

    That is TOTES AWESOME!! I think I thought the same thing when I saw my proteins glowing green too...

  • Stephanie Z says:

    What other class of professional whores themselves out for years just to get into the business, and then endures regular beatings (from reviewers) just to keep in the game?

    Artists. Of course, I've been known to say that art and science come from the same place.
    PP, I like that it doesn't surprise me that you were buddies with the janitor.

  • Dave says:

    Good point, Stephanie. I totally agree with what you say. In fact, I have a book titled Science is Art in the works. The premise is that deciphering the world and communicating that understanding are fundamental parts of being human. Though the language and traditions are somewhat different, both science and art ultimately seek to communicate a sense of reality. Thus, they are at the core the exact same pursuit.
    The reason this idea expands into a book is because I need room for examples, and discussions about technology, etc.

  • Dave says:

    I should add that I was a professional (in that I got paid for it) artist before I became a scientist. But obviously I think I've only changed titles and not really jobs. Science is harder, by the way; the standards are higher.

  • Terry says:

    I think you are half right, Dave(et al.), Many of us scientists are artists at heart, and appreciate the beautiful complexity and patterns of the problems and the answers. However there are also it seems half (who always somehow seem to get picked for reviewers...) that are deconstructionists and just can't appreciate science for the beauty that is there and always get stuck in minutiae and side details. I also think this reflects Haeckel and the ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Half seem to be about the art and incorporate that and it drove them to science and that eureka euphoria, the other half more seem to do academic science because they don't know/can't do anything else, and they get to have power over others and feed there egos. You can always tell which group your reviewers fall into...

  • pinus says:

    ahh
    I remember my 1st real "holy shit" moment in grad school. actually it was in two parts.
    part 1. taking a look at XYZ and then designing the experiments that would test the theory. It seemed so simple when I looked at it...I was shocked.
    part 2. actually doing the experiments and seeing that they worked and my hypothesis was correct.
    yeah, that was awesome...I think that feeling powered me through the long hours of grad school!

  • jc says:

    HAHAHA SciC - I used to send my PhD advisor emails at 4am with my data analyses or pretty figures titled "I'M A FUCKING GENIUS! - SEE!!!!" He just lols at me (and agrees!). My geniusness is now a well known fact.
    My editor chief once told me that he gave a talk decades ago about the connections of science and art, and the audience wailed about how he should focus on TEH TROOTH. Later, after refocusing, he came to realize his search for truth was missing its glory and that science and art are indeed two sides of the same coin. I agree.

  • neurolover says:

    "damn straight. I still generally call my Mom. She has no idea what I am talking about but she loves getting to share the moment."
    OK, that seals the deal, Juniorprof. I definitely want my children to grow up to be you.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    The greatest moment of discovery is the kind that proves your hypothesis to be correct, while turning a well established dogma on its head. If you are lucky, you can then watch for years to come how your little revolution is changing the minds of more and more peers and its recognition turning the paper you published into your seminal work.

  • Dave says:

    The greatest moment of discovery is the kind that proves your hypothesis to be correct, while turning a well established dogma on its head. If you are lucky, you can then watch for years to come how your little revolution is changing the minds of more and more peers...

    ...and then slowly realizing that NIH is -- for exactly these reasons -- very unlikely to ever fund the work.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Absolutely true, Dave. Just like the starving artist who produces the best work without sponsorship.
    Conclusion - money will corrupt your science and your art! 😉

  • Greg Laden says:

    And the janitor has never been the same since. Seriously.

  • nothing big by today's standards but my aha came at 11 am on a Saturday, hungover and developing an autorad. we just got an antibody for a protein i was studying that we thought was phosphorylated. indirect evidence was suggestive the protein was regulated by PTM. however, no one had shown it in cells so i did the now-pedantic and typical 32P-inorganic phosphate labeling/immunoprecipitation. hela cells, actually. i knew from the geiger counter of the dried gel that we were golden and got pretty hammered that friday night knowing that saturday morning would be good. called my advisor, also hungover but home, and he said, "sounds like you have a dissertation project."
    even to confirm something that was proposed to exist got my blood pressure going.

  • Mark says:

    that awesome running-around-trying-to-find-someone-to-share-your-breakthrough-with feeling is what sustains me. This is also the reason I prefer to not be a PI/faculty but to be a staff scientist in industry or research institute. Once people become PIs they no longer do hands-on work themselves so they are not the first ones to see the breakthrough or to have DIRECTLY made it happen. "Managing" a project does not bring about the same elation. Even if you contributed the key technical suggestions to your students or postdocs that led to the breakthrough, you may well feel great when your students tell you the good news but it's just not the same as doing it yourself and being the first one to witness your own ideas come to life. In many ways I feel that faculty/PIs have to settle for living vicariously through their students/postdocs and I don't want to live viacariously.

  • "Managing" a project does not bring about the same elation. Even if you contributed the key technical suggestions to your students or postdocs that led to the breakthrough, you may well feel great when your students tell you the good news but it's just not the same as doing it yourself and being the first one to witness your own ideas come to life. In many ways I feel that faculty/PIs have to settle for living vicariously through their students/postdocs and I don't want to live viacariously.

    Having never been a PI yourself, you obviously can't possibly know how wrong you are about this.

  • Molly, NYC says:

    Tangentially, it's also yet another example of how Creationists Don't Get It: If there was any real evidence for ID, scientists wouldn't fight it--they'd be absolutely, screaming, beaming, pants-creaming thrilled.

  • Mark says:

    @#23: that is what many PI's tell me that they miss about their pre-PI days.
    But there are those who are happy to live vicariously. my comment obviously struck a nerve.

  • MJR says:

    I'm sure the exhilaration is just different in nature. Physically seeing that data come up though, probably cant touch that.

  • qaz says:

    Mark #25 - It depends greatly on your management style and on the mechanisms of your experimental protocols. My management style is hands-on. My answers don't come without a lot of complex analyses. So the eureka-moments in my lab come on a computer screen days (or weeks, once even years) after the experiment is done. In a lot of cases, after seeing something cool, you have to check a whole bunch of simpler (and more boring) explanations. In my management style, I am right in the thick of those discussions to figure out all of the alternate explanations, and I can tell you, it's just as exciting to be sitting with a post-doc or graduate student saying "is that real?" as it was to be running the experiment myself. And for me, I can often run my own analyses on data collected by students. The real difference between then (as a post-doc) and now (as a PI) is that I get to run 10 experiments instead of 1. That ain't living vicariously. I wouldn't go back for the world.

  • Dave says:

    Being a PI *is* definitely different from being a postdoc. There are lots of things I miss about being a postdoc, but lots of things I like about being a PI. Here is an off-the-top-of-my-head list...
    Things I miss from when I was a postdoc:
    1) The relative lack of responsibility -- only needing to worry about my own career. I hate that my failures screw over a bunch of people who have placed their trust in me.
    2) TIME. Time to try new things, fiddle with new equipment, invent some new technique. I always feel like I should be talking to lab members or writing a grant proposal or preparing lectures of something. I secretly covet the times when something important breaks and only I can fix it, because I miss the simple joy of taking stuff apart.
    3) Being part of a team without that awkward feeling that everyone treats me different because I'm also the boss. I can't just hang out in the lab and shoot the shit. Gossip is definitely verboten.
    4) Big dreams. About where I would live, what kind of lab I would run, what awesome fame I would have. I have done fine, career-wise, but reality is always less than the dreams.
    Things I love about being PI:
    1) The pace of discovery. I don't have to rely only on my own time and expertise anymore to figure things out. Teams of people, sometimes doing things I don't know how to do myself, are all working together to answer things I wonder about.
    2) Finally getting the credit, even when it's not deserved. As PI, I finally get to be the guy invited to give talks and eat fancy meals and schmooze with the bigwigs. Even if I point out that others really deserve the credit for something, I get credit anyway, plus points for being 'gracious'.
    3) The feeling that I make a difference. When lab members are happy, when their careers flourish, when that 'light' goes on in the eyes of students during lecture and they practically hop out of their seats with curiosity and great questions... Those highs are total nirvana. When I die satisfied with my career, that's gonna be why.
    4) Free textbooks. Even if you're not teaching a class, all you have to do is say you're thinking about it, and publishers are all over themselves sending you $100 books.

  • qaz says:

    PS (to comment #27) - rereading it, it sounds like I didn't like my post-doc. I totally loved being a post-doc. I had a great time, I learned a lot, and got to work with some of the nicest, kindest, absolutely best scientists in the world. (I still collaborate with the PIs from my post-doc lab.) My time as a post-doc was great. But to echo what Dave #28 says - there's nothing like getting to sit in the big chair and getting to work with other people answering the things I wonder about.

  • neurolover says:

    "But to echo what Dave #28 says - there's nothing like getting to sit in the big chair and getting to work with other people answering the things I wonder about."
    I think a lot of this depends on one's individual personality, how close one wants to be to the production of data. This personality difference is a reason why I think the single track -> PI career (and the absence of "staff scientists") is a bad thing for science and scientists. There are people who really are most thrilled if they're there when the fluorescence appears under the microscope and others who are thrilled by being able to explore 10 ideas and pull them all together into a big picture. Right now, there's only room for the second kind, and people who need the first see a part of themselves shrivel, if they're successful enough to become PIs.

  • Dave says:

    There are people who really are most thrilled if they're there when the fluorescence appears under the microscope

    Who says I'm not? Quite often I am. Sitting in the Big Chair (as qaz puts it) doesn't mean our asses are stuck there all the time. My office is in the lab, where lab members can (and do) pop in to say 'come see this!' on a daily basis. Sometimes I have to finish the sentence I am writing, which can take 20 seconds or so, but you can damn well bet on the fact that I am right there with them when the good stuff happens if at all possible. An essential part of being a PI is sharing the excitement of discovery. Seriously -- if I am not excited then why should they be?
    CPP: You don't like books? Or you didn't know you could get free ones and are jealous? Or you grew up in some sort of millionaire household where money was no object? Or is it funny because it is so true?

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Dave,
    I'll bet you CPP makes fun of textbooks because he believes they have no value for scientists. I am sure that for him textbooks are old news and a waste of time and shelf space.

  • neurolover says:

    "you can damn well bet on the fact that I am right there with them when the good stuff happens if at all possible."
    Yeah, but they got to see it first. :-). I was different from you guys -- 'cause what absolutely thrilled me was when I knew something, and knew that no one else in the entire world knew it yet. Fortunately, since much of the real discovery occurs post-data collection during analysis, in my field, I still get that secret thrill.

  • Dave says:

    I'll bet you CPP makes fun of textbooks because he believes they have no value for scientists. I am sure that for him textbooks are old news and a waste of time and shelf space.

    If CPP doesn't like textbooks for those reasons, then I think...
    1) He must not have to teach.
    2) He has an incredible photographic memory and prodigious reading habits.
    3) His research is so narrow and uncreative that he rarely has to learn anything new or stretch himself outside the normal boundaries of his expertise.
    None of those things are true for me. I like free textbooks and am not ashamed to admit it.

  • Arlenna says:

    OMG guys, it's clearly funny because it's true. I lol'ed too! Y'all just look for any misconstrued chance to jump for the kill.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    You are not alone in your love for textbooks, Dave. I have in my possession many of the old books our library puts out once in a while for anyone to pick up. I enjoy browsing through some old textbooks. Sometimes, the best information, not reported anywhere else anymore, is found there and could be a trigger for some great new ideas. Moreover, in several instances I discovered that what some considered to be new or recent findings had been described decades earlier.

  • Dave says:

    The universal love of textbooks aside, I'm surprised no one else has anything to add to my list(s). Is my experience that common?
    [sniff] My mom always said I was special.

  • an ex PI says:

    Dave - I think your experience is pretty common. Certainly it hit the nail on the head for me. Which is why I long ago left my TT position and am now a senior research scientist in a research institute. I agree with Mark, I did become a PI and felt it was 'living vicariously' as he puts it. I felt disastisfied with that.
    The work of grad students and postdocs is very different from that of PI. There are two kinds of successful students/postdocs: those who dream of the day they no longer have to do the work they are presently doing and can have others do that work for them under their direction, and those who love exactly what they are doing and want to keep on doing it (but with a real salary and benefits like a real job).
    Being a faculty PI is basically being a technical manager, which is very different from a lab research scientist. Initially I was all excited and gung ho about being a PI because it was novel and different from my postdoc experience but as time went on I grew disastisfied with it because I'm just not that into being a manager of ideas/people/resources as being more closely involved in the act of doing the science.
    As a senior research scientist I do advise grad students and postdocs and head up projects, but it is different. I have far fewer projects and students/postdocs than when I was a PI so I know all my projects like the back of my hand and to a level of detail that I never did as a faculty PI. I find this level of involvement invigorating and is something I did not experience often as faculty. I find I have a deeper working relationship with my students and postdocs than when I was a faculty because we are "in the trenches together" so to speak.

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