Some late night reflections on what it feels like to be a scientist, broadcast on ABC Radio National in Australia on September 13th, and now available as a podcast at http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/ockhamsrazor/what-does-it-feel-like-to-be-a-scientist/6765454.
Here’s the transcript:
What does it feel like to be a scientist?
I want to talk with you today about what it means to be a scientist.
It means a great deal to me. Enough to have been driven to get up at two in the morning to write this talk, after fretting over a harmless comment that someone had made about how scientists are so unworldly. Having written five books about how scientists think about the real world and its problems, large and small, I thought that was a bit rich.
But it set me thinking about how little most people know about what it really feels like to be a scientist. And I want to share some of those thoughts and feelings with you.
The best way that I can think of doing this is to start by talking about my interactions with other scientists. I want to begin with Peter Mason, whom some of you may remember, because he made some of the early Ockham’s Razor programmes, and did many interviews with Robyn Williams. And his last one still brings a lump to my throat when I go back and listen to it.
Peter was a Professor of physics at Macquarie University in Sydney, and very keen on the promotion of science. His subject was light, and he wrote a lovely little popular book called “The Light Fantastic” which is still very much worth a read. He was a good friend to me during my early days, although I looked up to him with some awe, because as a young CSIRO scientist it seemed to me that professors and their ilk were demi-gods, to whose position I could never really aspire. A similar attitude on the part of others turned out to be a significant problem later in life when I, too, became a senior scientist and tried my hand at communicating science, only to discover that most people saw scientists as demi-gods, benevolent or evil according to taste, but always beyond the realm of ordinary mortals, and in command of knowledge that was beyond the ken of the majority of people. In fact, when my wife and I go to parties and people find out that I am a scientist, many of them turn to her to ask her what I do, rather than risk the embarrassment of not understanding my own answer.
But Peter made even the most complicated science very understandable. He also showed the great quality of making science central to his life, no matter what the circumstances, which is one of the most important aspects of being a scientist. His dedication to science even showed itself when he developed a brain tumour, but still continued to make programmes and do interviews with Robyn exploring his loss of language as the tumour took hold. When he made his last programme, he was down to just two hundred words, but still managing to make coherent sense of what was going on inside him.
Another friend from whom I learned a lot in my early years about what it means to be a scientist was called Denis Haydon. I was even more in awe of him than I had been with Peter. Denis was a Cambridge professor and a Fellow of the Royal Society. I spent a year working with him in the Physiological Laboratory at Cambridge University, trying to make artificial membranes that I could blow up into bubbles and push together to model the processes involved in cell adhesion and recognition. Denis kept encouraging me even though I didn’t have a skerrick to show for it, apart from a taste for the Chelsea buns that we used to buy each Saturday morning from Fitzbillie’s cake shop, opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum, for our morning tea with his students. Yes, we did work on Saturdays, which was not only expected but normal. In my experience, scientists work harder, and for longer hours, than most other professional people that I know.
I did eventually get the technique working when I got back to Australia , and invited Denis to come and help me and share in the triumph. I was running a conference at the time, and I thought that he would make an excellent after-dinner speaker. Unfortunately I neglected to apprise him of this fact, and only thought to mention it to him on the afternoon of the conference dinner. I can’t tell you exactly how he responded to this late call, since this is a family show, but he agreed, and pulled it off magnificently. He even managed a dig at the cultural cringe that many scientists then had, and which some still have, by telling the old story of coming through immigration and being asked if he had a criminal record, whereupon he responded “No. I didn’t realize that it was still compulsory.”
A few years later Denis developed bone cancer, which he first recognized as a pain in the elbow when he picking up his luggage at an airport. Like Peter, he was much more concerned with his science than he was with his personal tragedy, and made copious notes of the effects of different levels of calcium on his ever-bending back. He also made sure to complete writing up and summarizing all of his scientific work, despite his illness. When I last visited him, a few months before his death, he was busy writing his own obituary for the Royal Society. He didn’t tell me at the time, but he referred to me in it as “persistent”, which I think is one of the greatest compliments that he could have offered, and yet another part of what it means to be a scientist.
Peter and Denis were not only persistent; they were brave in the pursuit of ideas, and this is another important part of being a scientist. It is a description that certainly applied to the West Australian doctor Barry Marshall, who thought that gastric ulcers were caused by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, and not by “excess stomach acid”, as was widely believed at the time. To test his theory, he infected himself with the bacterium. He must have been the only person in the world to have been pleased to get stomach pains. He was even more pleased when antibiotics relieved the pains, confirming his theory.
Barry also displayed another aspect of what it can mean to be a scientist – that of self-deprecation. When he was awarded a Nobel Prize, a journalist asked him what you had to do to get one. Rather than glorying in his personal achievement, which most scientists actually hate doing and find quite cringe-making, he simply replied “Always be nice to Swedish people.”
Speaking of Swedish people reminds me of the great botanist Joseph Banks, after whom the Banksia genus is named. Banks wasn’t Swedish himself – in fact, he was a rather wealthy Englishman who paid to travel with Captain Cook, who became President of the Royal Society, and who also became President of the Linnean Society of London. The society is named after the Swedish scientist Carl Linneaus, who developed the binomial system of classifying biological organisms that we still use today.
I am a Fellow of the society myself, which doesn’t mean a great deal except that I am entitled to borrow and take home early editions of Banks’s and Darwin’s writings from our London library. But my privileges don’t extend to taking home the original specimens from Linnaeus’s collection. That was why I mentioned Banks, because he was the one that secured the collection for the society. As an active member of an international network of scientists, he was very aware of what Linnaeus had done, and being part of an international network is another side of what it means to be a scientist. Being able to recognize and follow up scientific winners is another aspect, and Banks certainly recognized this winner. When Linnaeus died and his collection of notebooks and specimens came up for auction, Banks was first off the blocks with a bid, and the collection soon found its way on a boat back to England. The king of Sweden belatedly realized what a treasure his nation was losing, and sent a navy ship in pursuit, but it was too late. The British ship made it to port first, and the collection is now housed in the bowels of the Linnean Society’s rooms in London. If you ask nicely, I might even show it to you, as I already have to quite a few Australian visitors.
Asking nicely is another characteristic of what it means to be a scientist, at least when it comes to sharing ideas and information. Science is, above all, a community activity. We love to communicate with each other, and we love to share. This is how science mainly progresses, although the pressure these days to make commercial capital out of what we are doing sometimes spoils it – not only to the detriment of science, but to the detriment on commercial and industrial productivity itself. Many people see scientists as living in ivory towers, but in reality it is the politicians and profit-seekers who inhabit these edifices. There is little room left for scientists, and in any case we are much too busy chatting in our coffee rooms.
Which brings me to my final point about what it means to be a scientist, and that is that, above all, we enjoy a challenge. I don’t mean this just in the conventional sense of enjoying tackling difficult problems, although that is certainly part of it. But we also enjoy, and benefit from being challenged. Like most people (especially politicians) we are very liable to believe our own theories and ideas rather too readily. We grow fond of them. We sometimes tend to dismiss contrary evidence, even though it is our job to look for it. We like to perceive patterns, and we are tempted to ignore things that don’t quite fit with them. In other words, we are perfectly normal people. But we differ from perfectly normal people in one important respect. We deliberately expose ourselves to criticism and refutation by others. More often than not, this happens in the coffee room or the bar.
When I was a full-time scientist, the coffee room was my favourite spot, as it was for many of my colleagues. We would make a point of getting there by eight in the morning, before the administrative working day had started, just to spend an hour talking about – well, anything. It was here that the ideas of the previous day and evening were presented and exposed to the scrutiny of others. Sometimes they led somewhere, but often they were torn to shreds before their perpetrator went public. It was the same in the evening, although here it was the latest results that were more often the topic of conversation.
But above all, it was just great fun – a group of people getting together to share something that they enjoyed, and which really mattered to them. And, ultimately, that is what science is about. Tackling problems that really matter. And being a member of a community to whom they matter as well.
Sometimes that community can seem like a closed one, inaccessible to outsiders. I became a communicator of science, as well as continuing to be an active scientist, to help break down this perceived barrier from both sides. Sometimes the barrier is a real one, as it has to be for any profession that uses specialized knowledge. I don’t know how well I would fit in with a group of plumbers or lawyers, for example, and even with fellow writers I can find myself floundering because of our diversity of interests.
But there are also commonalities between what scientists do and what other people are interested in and find important. One of those is commonalities is simply being curious about how the world works. Maybe this is more important to scientists than it is to some other people, but make no mistake – it is important, both to follow that curiosity and to share it. Which is what I hope I have done here.
Welcome to the club.