Last month I took a legendary train trip: I travelled on “The Ghan” from Adelaide to Alice Springs.
It takes about twenty-five hours, and the landscape doesn’t change in the last seven hours of daylight travel. No towns, no intersections, no forests, no visible farms, not even a kangaroo. Just desert. And in the desert there is nothing to distract you from your thoughts, so my mind wandered to science, or rather, to scientists.
Science is a search for objective answers. What one person discovers should be reproducible by someone else. A hypothesis is worthless without evidence found by others. Who you are doesn’t matter in science – only what you discovered.
In a way, this makes scientists nothing more but a number. Yes, your name is on a paper, but in the end it’s the work that counts, and not who you are. Theoretically, whatever one person discovers could equally well be discovered by someone else. Theoretically. But in the real world, it’s more complicated, as it usually is.
Whether or not you’re able to discover the objective truths of nature depends on countless variables. Does the lab have money? Is the lab close to other labs? Part of a big institute? What is your position in the lab? Are you a student? Are you close to graduating? Did you pick the project or did your supervisor? Do you get along with your supervisor? With your other labmates? Are you the head of the lab? How many people do you have working for you? Are you also teaching? What’s the teaching load? Are your students competent? Do you use your lab notebook properly? Do you have access to all the papers you need? Do you have problems at home that affect your concentration? Are you healthy? Are you pregnant? Did you sleep well? Do you live close to the lab? Do you have any hobbies? Can you think on your feet? How’s your memory? What’s the weather like? Does the lab have air conditioning? Do you have all the reagents you need? Did you just switch brands? Did you favourite brand change their solutions? Is the kit you need discontinued? Did the tech who knows everything just leave the lab? Were you at the latest conference? Why? Was the conference in an interesting location?
And so on.
Change enough of these variables, and it might make the difference between dropping out of grad school or getting a Nobel Prize. Change just one, and it could be the difference between publishing before the competition and not publishing at all.
The anonymous scientists quoted in short news reports could be anyone: “Scientists have discovered…”, “scientists agree….”, “according to scientists…”
But they’re not just anyone. They’re people.
And on the train from Adelaide to Alice Springs I realized that maybe I’m a scientist after all. Not just by degrees, but by nature. Because I might not be the kind of person who lives to do nothing but study the function of cells, molecules, or atoms, but I’m really interested in how scientists function, and how such a mixed group of individuals is supposed to unravel the ultimate truths about the world.
So I grabbed my notebook and a pen and started working out this common thread in all the fringe activities I’ve had in the past years, and thought of ways to turn them into a viable career.
I didn’t reach a conclusion, but I did reach Alice Springs, and it was there that I got inspiration for another blog post – but I’ll leave that for next time.