Scientists are often portrayed in pop-culture as pedantic types, with personalities as stiff as their starched white lab coats. While they may have a pressing work ethic and incessant care for detail, their work is creative by nature. Scientists must create knowledge by designing and building experiments. In this way, a scientist is closer to a starving artist than to an automaton.
A scientific project might be spawned from reading a paper and finding an unanswered question, or just observing a phenomenon and wondering how it happens. This stage is quite exciting – you imagine yourself doing experiments that will answer your question (or you imagine collecting data using some brand-new technique, and the results would be unlike anything anyone’s ever observed). The prospect of discovering something new is as thrilling as falling in love.
To do science is to create, and in this creative process, scientists are similar to writers. In a 1998 essay, the great David Foster Wallace compared a fiction writer to the parent of a “hideously damaged infant that follows the writer around, forever crawling after the writer (dragging itself across the floor of restaurants where the writer’s trying to eat, appearing at the foot of the bed first thing in the morning, etc.), hideously defective, hydrocephalic and noseless and flipper-armed and incontinent and retarded and dribbling cerebro-spinal fluid out of its mouth as it mewls and blurbles and cries out to the writer, wanting love, wanting the very thing its hideousness guarantees it’ll get: the writer’s complete attention.”
So too the unfinished experiments follow the scientist around, exploiting our obsessive nature, waiting to be not just completed but perfected too. As their creator we pick away at its every corner, noticing every imperfection, and more.
As you start doing the experiments, things get a lot harder than you imagined. Things don’t quite work, or work just enough to show some promise, but then you still need to do the experiment again because it wasn’t quite right the first dozen times. At a certain point, you start obsessing over your creation, ruminating on the experiments while showering or grocery shopping. The experiments invade your dreams, appearing as absurd creations that would never be possible in reality. It’s not surprising (but certainly rude) that at parties, scientists inevitably start talking shop, awkwardly ignoring the blank stares of non-scientist friends. Our hideous child is our burden, but also our greatest pride.
DFW goes on:
The fiction always comes out so horrifically defective, so hideous a betrayal of all your hopes for it – a cruel and repellent caricature of the perfection of its conception – yes, understand: grotesque because imperfect. And yet it’s yours, the infant is, it’s you, and you love it and dandle it and wipe the cerebro-spinal fluid off its slack chin with the cuff of the only clean shirt you have left (you have only one clean shirt left because you haven’t done laundry in like three weeks because finally this one chapter or character seems like it’s finally trembling on the edge of coming together and working and you’re terrified to spend any time on anything other than working on it because if you look away for a second you’ll lose it, dooming the whole infant to continued hideousness). And but so you love the damaged infant and pity it and care for it; but also you hate it – hate it – because it’s deformed, repellent, because something grotesque has happened to it in the parturition from head to page; hate it because its deformity is your deformity (since if you were a better fiction writer your infant would of course look like one of those babies in catalogue ads for infant wear, perfect and pink and cerebro-spinally continent) and its every hideous incontinent breath is a devastating indictment of you, on all levels…and so you want it dead, even as you dote and wipe it and dandle it and sometimes even apply CPR when it seems like its own grotesqueness has blocked its breath and it might die altogether.
As the process continues, the obsessiveness gets fueled by fear that the project will not turn out well. What if, after years of neck-breaking effort, the results turn out to be just disappointing? Uninteresting? Unoriginal? What if at the end of it all, the data is unexceptional and the story uninteresting to anyone but the most niche of connoisseurs? Worse, what if you discover a fatal bug in your analysis code? Or that you just missed one step in the experiments, turning years of work into junk? Your infant is then destined to solitary confinement in one of those jars that house malformed fetuses, floating in formaldehyde, preserved perpetually in its oddity.
If you somehow, miraculously, rescue your poor child and maybe even realize that you may have been a bit too harsh in your evaluation, other people might start to appreciate your work and perhaps even pay you to do more of it.Despite the obsession, burden, and invasion of science into your daily life, you start a new project, still excited by a new beginning. Here, a question comes up: why do you do scientific research? Everyone has their reasons; for me, I agree with DFW’s reason for writing: it’s fun.
I get to build rigs for my experiments, making custom hardware and electronics; I get to perform delicate surgeries that allow me to observe neurons in action; I get to write code to analyze my data and plot informative, (hopefully) beautiful figures; I get to share my findings with the world through writing. Throughout it all, I get to work with brilliant people who challenge, inform, and inspire me.
So if you do research because it’s fun, it should continue to be fun for as long as you do it. It seems all too often that people either aren’t doing it because it’s fun, or forget that it should be. Either way, some scientists seem to be not having fun, perhaps losing hope that their child can be rescued, or just being overcome with dread over the sniveling thing following them around all the time.
In DFW’s evaluation, the fun often stops when a writer becomes popular and starts writing not for his own pleasure, but in order to be liked more. “You’ve found you very much enjoy having your writing liked by people, and you find you’re extremely keen to have people like the new stuff you’re doing. The motive of pure personal fun starts to get supplanted by the motive of being liked, of having pretty people you don’t know like you and admire you and think you’re a good writer. Onanism gives way to attempted seduction, as a motive. Now, attempted seduction is hard work, and its fun is offset by a terrible fear of rejection. Whatever “ego” means, your ego has now gotten into the game. Or maybe “vanity” is a better word.” .
This is perhaps where the analogy could be extended. Scientists surely have fear of rejection (who doesn’t?), be it from funding agencies, journals or just nature. And scientists certainly don’t lack egos. What DFW doesn’t mention, but I suspect is true of writers as well, is that underneath the veneer of ego is deep insecurity, built from the constant need to prove oneself and the secret conviction that all previous successes were flukes. DFW himself did not stop expressing self doubt after his immense success as a writer. Our work is never done, there will be always new questions to ask, and new improved methods to answer them. Our satisfaction and feeling of accomplishment is fickle by nature.
The self doubt will probably persist. In moderate doses, it might be healthy – keeping you in check, always reminding you to do your best possible work. Too much self doubt can turn people off from the work completely (imposter syndrome too often causes young people, especially women, to leave science). The sorts of pressure associated with science today, combined with widespread depression, sometimes leads to suicide.
All this is meant as a reminder that if the reason you started doing science in the first place was that it was fun, that you should not forget how to have fun, even years later.
1. This seduction for DFW could sometimes be literal. I was not convinced that the same is true for scientists until a good friend recently told me, “But of course you get laid more if you have Nature papers. How is that not obvious?”