Home Science CommunicationScholarly communication On the train: thoughts about scientists

On the train: thoughts about scientists

by Eva Amsen

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.

Thinking about scientists in the desert

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.


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Heather Etchevers August 17, 2009 - 2:32 AM

This one was a pretty inspiring one, though.
A while ago, my blog was entitled, “Humans in Science” (it’s still out there somewhere, for future examination by sociologists). I agree (being one of them) that the subject of what makes scientists find and function effectively is worthy of study. At least, of interest.
Looking forward to the next round.

Sabbi Lall August 17, 2009 - 3:01 AM

Sometimes it seems like “being at the right place at the right time”, but there is much more to how scientists function than that. Sounds like you got from A to B in more ways than one (long train journeys are great for that!)

Richard P. Grant August 17, 2009 - 10:18 AM

I’ll get the beer in, if you’re going to get all philosophical on us.

Eva Amsen August 17, 2009 - 1:57 PM

Beer makes it worse. Or, wait, the beer’s for _you_, because you have to deal with it?
Beer may affect the outcome of the _next_ post…

Richard Wintle August 17, 2009 - 2:48 PM

That was a very nice post, Eva. And the photo of the tree was a good existential counterpoint to it.
I know where Heather’s old blog is. It’s right next to a similarly-neglected one of mine.

Richard P. Grant August 17, 2009 - 2:49 PM


Darren Saunders August 17, 2009 - 4:05 PM

Nice post Eva. Science feels like a very inhumane place to me most of the time, but I don’t think it’s meant to be that way.
Oh, and if you think the trip on the Ghan felt long to you, spare a thought for “this bloke”:http://www.news.com.au/travel/story/0,28318,25599450-5014090,00.html

Anna Vilborg August 17, 2009 - 5:30 PM

… _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_ …
If you do, please let us know, because it sounds like it could be a very interesting one! I like your thought that the interest in scientists and how they work is also a way of being a scientist

Heather Etchevers August 19, 2009 - 7:16 PM

Darren, the phrase “pathologically, nearly fatally stupid” comes to mind in that context.

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