One of the cruellest insights a young scientist will receive is how often the working reality of a field is very different to its grand image.
Just about everybody likes dinosaurs. They’re big, they’re scary, they’re dead, there’s a lot known but a lot left to be discovered, and they’re about the closest thing we’ll have to alien contact until E.T. pops over to harvest some herbs.
But to be a paleontologist, to spend your working life studying dinosaurs, is a rather different and considerably dustier proposition.
First, your essential conceptual areas are geology (so you know where to find them and how they’re preserved), and anatomy (so you can put together all the shards that you dig out of the ground), two of the driest – pun very much intended – subjects out there. Plus, rather than spend your field trips peering into a lost cave to find a complete fossilised raptor skeleton staring at you out of the wall, you’re more likely to be carefully excavating a dollop of dinosaur dung with a toothbrush. Welcome to the frontier.
It’s a contrast that applies to pretty much every branch of scientific endeavour. No matter what’s the glamour of the version pushed in the pop science literature and on the news, the everyday practice of science is invariably esoteric, sometimes mind-bogglingly so. For all the drama of virus outbreaks, your average virologist is going to spend more time quantifying plaque-forming units (deadly, deadly dull) than rushing vaccines into a hot zone. There’s the romance of a field, and then its working reality.
Instead, scientists will spend the vast majority of their research time focused on one or more very small and very specific questions. Carrying, as Ian McEwan put it in Enduring Love, “your own atomic increment to the mountain of human knowledge”.
It’s a contrast that can be doubly difficult in terms of motivation. Not only are we likely to be investing a huge amount of our time and energy on something very small and possibly utterly insignificant, but we’re also raised on a culture of breakthrough science, inculcated and encouraged to believe that individual researchers can make game-changing, world-altering, impactful contributions.
The problem with this breakthrough science/breakthrough paper mantra – not least the way it runs counter to the cautious, sober paradigm of how science is supposed to be done – is that it devalues good quality “normal” science. One of the architects of this perspective, Peter Medawar, portentously opined in his Advice to a Young Scientist that:
“It can be said with complete confidence that any scientist at any age who wants to make important discoveries must study important problems. Dull or piffling problems yield dull or piffling answers. It is not enough that the problem should be interesting: almost any problem is interesting if it is studied in sufficient detail.”
Medawar said many accurate and incisive things in his time, but in this proposition he was wrong. “Important” problems, as defined by contemporary science, are likely to be mainstream problems, and consequently heavily overpopulated in the present environment. Overpopulation leads to hypercompetition, and hypercompetition leads to corner-cutting, a rush to publish, and bad science.
Rather, what scientists should be doing is leaving importance for posterity to judge and focusing on doing good quality work. And the best way to sustain the production of good quality work is to find something you’re passionate about in the big picture sense. Lose sight of your place in the grand scheme of things while you’re absorbed in your own esoterica, and you end up like Blake’s Newton – oblivious to the world around him as he twiddles with the compass in his hand. Lose sight of where you fit into the big picture, and your work will quickly start seeming pointless when the flow of data hits an obstacle.
But by holding onto that perspective, by seeing that what you’re really doing is working on dinosaurs even as you’re fastidiously bent over a fossilised turd, you’ll be able to chip out one coprolite after the other.
Your project is your piece of the big picture. Even though you’re only working on a small bit of it, you still are part of the endeavour as a whole. Everybody does their bit. Do your bit.