Thursday, 5 January 2012

Curiouser and curiouser

Are non-scientists more interested in science than scientists?
In the olden days, when neuroscience was still only my hobby, and not my career, I used to read about science in my free time. I would use the money I saved up from tutoring hyperactive school kids to buy popular science magazines; Scientific American, Discover, New Scientist. I ended up with quite a collection, and my mom still has them displayed at home, complete with post-its marking my favourite articles! (Yes, I was a lonely lonely child in the olden days.)
Last week I bought a New Scientist for something to read on the plane to Oslo, and read it cover to cover. It was the first time I had bought a popular science magazine in 6 years, since I started my Masters in Neuroscience (followed by a PhD in More of the Same). What changed? I had just defended my Viva a couple of weeks earlier. And now, with my PhD behind me and the rest of my life ahead of me, I’m becoming interested in science again.
Of course, I’ve always been interested in science, that’s why I decided to study it in the first place. And I loved my PhD, was genuinely interested in the topic, and enjoyed reading the literature and writing my thesis, all of it. But I stopped being curious about the Rest of Science.  
Last month, I gave my Viva talk in Dublin and then flew to London to give talk to a group of non -scientists the next day. It was the same topic: exercise-induced cognitive enhancement (how exercise makes us smarter-fascinating stuff!), but I was just blown away by the number of interesting, novel, and lively questions my lay-audience threw at me. Whereas during my Viva talk, interest was minimal, and the questions were, let’s just say, lacking in imagination. Another example of this disturbing phenomenon is the Neuroscience Seminar Series, which I helped organise throughout my PhD. Our biggest problem was getting people to speak. Our second biggest problem was getting people to attend. Then our biggest problem became getting people to organise it, because everyone was sick of trying to get people to speak and attend.
Ok, ok, I know I’m being unfair. Scientists have to be around science all day long, they don’t want to have to think about more science in their free time. And they’ve got enough watermelons to juggle with their own science, without getting a butternut squash thrown at them at random. But I do feel a twinge of regret when my sister texts me at 3pm in the afternoon from Oxford with the words: ‘what’s a macrophage?’ ‘White blood cell that eats up toxins/intruders.’ I texted back, and then added ‘Why?’ The reply: ‘Just curious’.
 In the lab, despite our best intentions, science stops being about curiosity and more about producing data. I know it wouldn’t work any other way, to do science you need funding, to get funding you need publications, to get publications you need results (of some sort), and to get results you need to work hard and try different things and troubleshoot and learn new techniques and then troubleshoot them and then repeat the whole procedure ad nauseam, and somewhere along the way, our curiosity gets serially diluted.  You get it back sometimes, brief moments when you’re doing a particularly interesting experiment, but then that’s your Project Curiosity, and you’ve got to hold on to that one to some degree throughout your PhD just to be able to get yourself out of bed in the morning.
But what about the Rest of Science Curiosity? Is there a way to get it back while you’re still in science? Or do you have to get to High-King-Professor level, when you’re not actually doing any science yourself, before you can afford to regain your Rest of Science Curiosity? And if there was a way to get it back while still in science (latex-gloves-on-science) would it make us better and more satisfied and more productive scientists?
I don’t know, but I intend to find out. Will keep you posted.

1 comment:

  1. This is a little condescending. I am a scientist too. Just because it's not physics or biology doesn't mean it's not science. What I do involves a hypothesis, experiments that prove the hypothesis, and an analysis of the results of these experiments.

    It's not that non-scientists are more interested in science. Most of the non-scientists I know couldn't give a hoot about what a macrophage is. In fact, they will sit around and roll their eyes if I start talking about numbers and probabilities. They will get a headache if they try to think of it themselves.

    What is more likely is this: There are two kinds of people, those who are curious about how things work and who think critically about the universe, and those who don't. Those who are curious and have studied science are likely to have sated this curiosity. Those who haven't studied science retain this curiosity.

    We don't enjoy science less because we are scientists. I think you're just burnt out and need a break. You'll find your curiosity and willingness to learn again soon.

    Lots of love,