Science hurts. And not just a little. And every step of the way. Take, for example, the pain of getting a new idea. Let's not kid ourselves, this can hurt — and it should. If we fashion ourselves as mental athletes (in a way, but without the endorsement deals), we think until we hit the wall (“There are no new ideas!”) and then, like the intellectual marathon runners we are, we cogitate through the wall to come up with that great idea. And we sigh with relief, jot it down, look at it every which way, and then show pictures of it to all our friends (“Oh. Um. Yes, it's beautiful.”). Then the experiment works a little, teases us, sends us (or one of our friends) back to try again and again. And again (“Three times, please!”). Then it does work, but... the controls don't (“Ouch!”). Then everything works (“Yay!”) and the next time it doesn't (“Ouch, ouch!”).
Finally, it works consistently, sort of, and we show all our friends (“Yes, very beautiful, but you knew it was going to work, right? You must be so proud.”) So we write (“Ouch!”). Each word in our wonderful manuscript is like bleeding onto the page. But, finally, several units of blood later, it's finished, and some of our friends don't hate it (“Yes, fine, I sort of looked at it — looks great.”) We send it off. And wait. And wait.
And just when we've forgotten that we'd even submitted the damned thing, we get the reviews. Screwed. Should have used a different system. Should have done a different control. Should have been on a different planet. Doesn't mean anything, and what we think it means is wrong. We've been done. Wounded and disheartened, we drag ourselves back to the bench to do it all again. You know where this is going — no you don't, stay with me here.
And of course the money is running out. So we bleed some more and write a grant (“Ouch!”), and say how lovely all this might someday be. And by now the second set of reviews on the paper are in (“Just a bit better. Ouch!”). And of course the grant is destroyed, and we lick our wounds and do it again.
Of course, it's our friends and colleagues who are murdering us at each turn. And we can't wait to do it to someone else. But that isn't my point here. My question, for the tortured among us, is this: why do we do it? Why do we put up with how miserably hard science is, and do it anyway?
Here's why, I think. It's because we're scientists. Like artists, we need to create. And the pain? Well, creating hurts. Doing something new is unbearably hard. And when we're at our best (and sometimes we are, but still without the endorsement deals) the result is a thing of beauty. Complete strangers can see how beautiful it is. Okay, it isn't always a masterpiece. But sometimes it is.
So we don't do it for the money (what money?). We don't do it for fame or glory (What fame? What glory?) We create because it's what we do. We have to.
When a student asks me whether they should be a scientist, my answer is always this: “If I were a wonderfully successful sculptor, and you were a talented young artist asking me if sculpting was something you should do, I'd give the same answer — What? Are you nuts! Go get a good job that doesn't hurt all the time! Make some real money. Have a life!”
But the good ones ignore me. Just like I ignored my professor who gave me the same excellent advice when I was a young mole-let. We go into this (or should) because it is something that we need to do. So we do.
Here's the moral. When you have a good idea, celebrate it. When the experiment works, celebrate it. When the paper finally gets in, then definitely celebrate it. And if the grant comes through, celebrate! Right away, now! Before the next huge disappointment. Remember, for a little while, why we do this. Raise your glasses high. And our toast? TO THE PAIN!
- © The Company of Biologists Limited 2003