On the obsessive hobbies of scientists

This is an extension to some thoughts I posted on Twitter awhile ago.

There is a certain species of “amazing scientist who is revolutionizing everything” biographical puff piece that strikes an interesting chord about academics. These are details that come up in seminar introductions, blog posts, media profiles, institutional profiles, award nominations and obituaries.

I am referring specifically to the part where they talk about hobbies, interests and activities that are not directly related to work*.

I surmise the hobby is discussed in these types of pieces to humanize the nerd or to amaze you that their non-science time is just as obsessive and elite as their science**. Possibly both of these apply simultaneously. Typical realms of discussion are obsessive sports participation (very commonly running long distance events or triathlon competition), foodie obsession (he cooks lavish meals for his lab), wine snobbery or the arts. With respect to the arts, you most commonly hear about how the scientist being lionized plays a musical instrument in a band. Presumably this ties into our societal obsession with rock n rollers and their supposed rebel natures. We know Francis Collins plays the guitar in a band. We know Nora Volkow likes to run. I can’t remember hearing about any community minded hobbies of any of the other IC directors.

You don’t hear about how the awesome scientist pulls his (it’s usually a him) weight at home in these types of settings. Obsessive plumbing leak fixer! Soccer dad! Makes meals for his family on the regular!

You don’t hear about community stuff either. Many scientists participate in local groups for improving the schools or city governance or their faith community. Many spend their time volunteering in the classroom.

And it isn’t just the puff pieces that draw this distinction between the externally-focused activities and the obsessively internally-focused ones. Academic science actually punishes people for anything they do that isn’t self-oriented.

If one is highly accomplished in science it is okay to have hobbies as long as they are obsessively self-involved ones like running marathons. It is obvious that any sort of external activity or hobby is only okay if the science work is considered to be of the highest rank. If one is considering a middle of the road scientist then clearly they should be spending more time at work and less time training for a marathon!

Look, I get that we like to know more about people's life outside of their work. Pursuit of the personal detail fuels industries valued in the billions of dollars when it comes to famous movie stars, musicians, politicians and professional athletes. There is no reason that people in science wouldn't also have an interest in the non-work activities of the more famous members of our professions.

But still. The relative selectivity in what we choose to lionize versus criticize about our science peers seems meaningful to me. It has an effect on all of us, including (most importantly) our trainees. Personally, I do not want people in science thinking (no matter how implicitly) that obsessive, self-involved hobbies are associated with the most revered scientists and that community type, external benefit activities are the hallmark of the scientific nobody.

Perhaps we could think twice about those seminar speaker intros we give and the nature of the puff pieces we write or contribute background to.

*Calm yourselves debate champeens. This set of observations is about which hobbies we choose to laud in a professional context and which ones we do not. It doesn’t mean you are horrible for running every day. Exercise is healthy and good for you. We should all do more of it.

**And I should also note that this doesn't have to devolve into “I only have time for work” snark, no matter the reality. I'm not criticizing hobbies and activities at all. I think that is great if you have things that make you happy. Again, this is about the type of such non-science hobbies that we find reason to congratulate or merely to note in a professionally-oriented biographical piece.

8 responses so far

  • Curio says:

    Come, now, Won't you one day be lauded for your prolific and brilliant blogging?

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    The point of all of these mentions of bands and marathons are to humanize scientists for the public. There is this misconception that scientists are humorless robots only interested in science. I don't think they are there for fellow scientists because we *know* we are humans with various hobbies, and it is not surprising for us that aging scientists would attempt to still be "cool" with bands and marathons and what not.

  • Philapodia says:

    “In his copious off time (being riff-raff as described by a certain former ASBMB President), Philapodia is a 12th level dark elf ranger who can summon a giant black panther to fight for his AD&D party, the Herpetic Lesion”

    Beat that, y’all!

  • PaleoGould says:

    "In his spare time, Prof Paleogould massively overcommits on hosting parties, and seems to be endlessly doing laundry".

  • randoprof says:

    "In her spare time, Dr. Randoprof continues to work through the reverberations of childhood trauma with her therapist and obsesses about photovoltaics she never gets around to installing."

    I think my colleagues would be shocked if they much about me. My trainees probably would be too. Feels like I lead a double life, to be honest.

  • randoprof says:

    *they *knew* much about me

  • Patrick says:

    This post was pretty enlightening for me. I'm an early-ish career scientist. I've competed in an endurance sport (a bit more obscure than running, but similar profile) since high school. It's always been a hobby and I've never been a champion, but I'm reasonable for my age. I also do a little bit of coaching with juniors, and volunteer on our club's committee in my spare time.

    People often nod approvingly when I tell them about training and competing side, but then cringe if I go on to mention the coaching and committee work. Your distinction between self-orientated and community-orientated work is a pretty good explanation of why.

    I think it's particularly puzzling, because I would say that the committee work probably has more chance of improving my scientific work than the physical training, yet it seems to be the training which impresses people and the committee work which turns people off.

  • Philapodia says:

    My question is, why should it matter one whit what anyone in a professional setting thinks about what we do in our off time? Faculty are not slaves (although it feels that way sometimes) and we are free to do non-science things that we actually like/want to do. Screw those who don't get why we do what we want to do. Being a cross-dressing dark elf ranger in a AD&D campaign doesn't affect our science, so who the f cares if you do it. You do you and to hell with what people think.

    Unless you're on study section reviewing my grant, then the whole D&D thing was just a bad joke and what I really do in my free time is train for ultra-marathons through death valley while simultaneously developing new techniques to de-worm orphans in East Africa and coming up with novel molecular gastronomy recipes.

    Yeah, that's what I do...

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