Time to grow

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As scientists, the most important thing we can give our children is our time.

It’s notable how frequently Richard Feynman’s anecdotes are peppered with references to his father. Feynman may have been a genius-level intellect, and thereby capable of paying scant attention to the somewhat dimmer lights that raised him, but his reverence for his father’s wisdom, insight, and curiosity consistently shine through in his prose. Would Feynman have scaled the same intellectual heights without that parental influence? We’ll never know.

Looking slightly further back, it’s also tangible how many of the intellectual heavyweights of the late 19th/early 20th century – the Freuds, the Huxleys, the Haldanes – spent their childhoods growing up in rich, intellectually stimulating environments.

Usually rich in a literal sense too. Until the 20th century, wealth and learning largely went hand in hand, and science was a preoccupation of those with independent means and no need to seek a paycheck. The democratisation of learning in the 20th century ultimately led to what is now an ever-expanding class of professional scientists.

But a lot of modern professional scientists are not financially wealthy, not comfortably set apart from the hurly-burly of debts, mortgages, and bills. For their level of education, they’re arguably rather modestly endowed in terms of income – certainly less handsomely rewarded than their undergraduate peers who chose to go into the commercial sector. Science does however remain an extraordinarily egalitarian calling, one where ability trumps background and where learning – both the act and the enthusiasm for it – counts more than connections.

There’s a dark side to this egalitarian, merit-based aspect however. A merit-based system requires you to demonstrate your merit, and the easiest way is by committing more time. The “all hours” lab culture that was once an expression of tireless enthusiasm and positivity is nowadays more often an endurance contest to see who can sacrifice more of their social life, eat the most microwave meals, and go without sex the longest. Universities requiring academics to raise some or nearly all of their salaries from research grants are complicit in a culture that squeezes scientists from both sides.

What becomes endangered in such an environment is home life. And for scientist-parents, the risk is that of sacrificing time that could be spent with their children.

We have, fortunately, moved on from the 1950s model of male breadwinner and female homemaker, and while some couples may choose to follow that setup there’s nowadays no guarantee that it’s the woman at home. Regardless of whether it’s a 50:50 split or a 1950s replica, you can bet that the scientist(s) in a family unit will be facing the dilemma of how many hours to commit to their lab/career, and how many to spend at the house.

In that dilemma, the temptation is often to choose the lab. Or at least, if one side of the equation is compromised, it’s the family one. Children have years ahead of them, but your career might be extinguished in months. 

That decision overlooks the fact that one of the most valuable gifts we, as scientists, can give our children is our time. Because we spend our working days surrounded by people who share the same abilities, we forget how unusual and extraordinary they are. An undimmed curiosity about the natural world, a capacity for critical and incisive thought, creativity, synthesis. These are rare skills that are unlikely to be picked up early without direct exposure to someone who manifests them.

We forget what an amazing opportunity we can give our children just by spending time with them. First-hand contact with an actual scientist! And not only that, demonstrating by our very proximity that science is a career as close and attainable as any other. Creating an intellectually stimulating atmosphere at the home is one of the simplest but most powerful advantages we, as scientists, can bequeath to our children.

Conversely, delegating the bulk of the parenting to the other person may lead to future resentment. It’s frightening how little research is remembered ten years down the line, but a daughter or son will remember that you missed their childhood, and that they didn’t seem as interesting or important to you as something in a Petri dish. That’s a legacy all right, but not the kind you want to have.

5 thoughts on “Time to grow

  1. Thank you for writing this. Balanced and realistic point of view. P.S. Not to complain or protect, but rather clarify. I suggest that first passage about Feynman and his relations to family is based on ‘Surely you r joking’ book, that was kind was fiction oriented. To find his unbiased, very humane and intimate connection to family and close circle in general, I would recommend collection of his letters published as “Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track”.

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  2. Very nice article, fully agree. However, when the something in the Petri dish ensures the something on your kids diner plate priorities cannot always be freely chosen …

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  3. I’m guessing most parents are keenly aware of these tradeoffs and spend plenty of time worrying about them. Perhaps these are the things worth worrying about. But as a counterpoint I will add that it was my own father’s passion for his engineering career that inspired me to do what I’m doing. He worked long days and travelled lots but I never questioned his commitment to me. I think he was good at being present when he was home. Maybe that made the difference.

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