What I Wish My Pastor Knew About… The Life of a Scientist, Part 2
Note: This is the second in a three part series, republished with permission from The Ministry Theorem. This post originally appeared on our site on February 9, 2012.
In the first post, Andy Crouch began to examine the life of a scientist based on his experience of walking alongside his wife Catherine, an experimental physicist. Today's post continues the discussion of the distinctive features of the scientific life.
To be sure, this humility is hard won. Not only is the work of science (and many technical fields) painstaking and frustrating, those pains are often taken for the sake of very small, incremental gains in knowledge. Every arena of human work involves difficulty, delay, and disappointment — “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.” Science, too, labors under the curse of a world that is not the way it is supposed to be. It is easy, for us who are lay people regarding science, to confuse science with technology. Technology is built on well-established knowledge, camouflaging tremendous amounts of human toil and sweat (not just scientific labor, of course, but also the labor of those who design and assemble our devices). Indeed, part of technology’s attraction is its implicit promise to temporarily repeal the Curse, delivering an experience of godlike effortlessness to its end user. Those of us who benefit from the end product of the scientific–technological process can easily forget that at the beginning of every discovery, from the steam engine to the transistor, were people laboring at the uncharted edges of human knowledge, and that most days they left their workbench quite unsure whether they were making any progress at all. Scientists may or may not believe in the words of Genesis 3, but they know the burdens of work — even and especially delightful work — very well.
This may be the thing that non-scientists understand least about science. Science is done in community. Popular culture, perhaps inevitably, has a hard time portraying this accurately. Dr. Frankenstein, toiling alone in his lab long after midnight, has become our paradigm for the practice of science. Or maybe for a younger generation, it is Back to the Future’s “Doc” Emmett Brown, tinkering with time in his garage. But Frankenstein and Doc are mad scientists, not real ones. Real — that is, sane — scientists collaborate. They work closely with one another — with peers, with advisors, with students. Nearly all scientific work today is intensely collaborative in a way that is foreign to nearly any other academic discipline, emphatically including theology. The most celebrated theologians (and pastors, too) write books with only their name on them, while the most celebrated scientists co-author papers with dozens of collaborators. It has been 19 years since a single individual won the Nobel Prize in Physics.
With the collaborative practice of science come the joys as well as the challenges of managing many people’s priorities, expectations, egos, abilities, and limitations. Perhaps that is why, in a way that also confounds popular stereotypes, I so often find that highly successful scientists have strong social skills. They are not always the smoothest customer at the dinner party, but they have something more important — a genuine interest in people, reserves of patience and generosity, and the ability to build and sustain teams that can survive the frustration of day-to-day research.
Let’s see — a community of people that work side by side, motivated by delight and wonder, characterized by intellectual humility and a willingness to admit they have been wrong and change direction, who together help one another bear the frustrations of work in a fallen world . . . does this sound like something the church ought to celebrate? Or perhaps even emulate? And yet I have never heard the world of science, the world my wife inhabits every day, held up even as a potential metaphorical reference point for the true beloved community toward which all of us are called. Perhaps it is closer than we think. It is not, of course, the beloved community. The world of science has its shadow side, and this too forms the life and work of my wife and her fellow scientists. Among the features of this shadow side:
Just as powerful and real as the cooperation within research groups is the competition between research groups to be first past the post with new discoveries. The currency of the academic scientific world is publication, and only the first group to submit its results can publish in the field’s most prestigious journal. (Patents in industry have even higher stakes.) The history of science is replete with simultaneous independent discoveries (Wikipedia has a fascinating, long list including Boyle’s Law, the Möbius strip, and polio vaccine), which suggests that “discovery” is as much a result of others’ prior work, and mysteriously important social conditions, as any one person’s or group’s pure genius. In a better world, that insight might chasten ambitions to be unique and first. But in the world we have, if anything, it aggravates the competition, since it is likely that whatever you are working on, some other group is probably also tantalizingly close to snatching the prize.
Competition can be healthy — most of us need it to reach the highest level of performance we are capable of, and when it is healthy it is exhilarating, even for those who do not finish first. But competition is most healthy when it occurs in an environment of abundance, where everyone knows they stand to gain by entering the race — consider the joy, satisfaction, and camaraderie at both the beginning and end of a typical triathlon. Competition becomes stressful, if not toxic, when it takes place in an environment of diminishing resources and threats to survival. Unfortunately, that is more and more often the case in the practice of science today. The twentieth century, fueled both by economic growth and by a high-level competition between the Soviet Union and the West, was a time of abundant resources for scientific work. In many fields, the twenty-first century looks to be much more constrained. As in many sectors of our global economy, first-place finishers are winning a greater share of the available resources. As the pressure ratchets up, so do the risks to the emotional and spiritual health of those practicing the science (and, very possibly, the long-term productivity and fruitfulness of the scientific enterprise itself).
To “career” is to hurtle out of control, lurching from side to side—which makes it odd that in the noun form, “career” connotes a well-defined and relatively predictable path of professional success. Scientific careers have much more in common with the original verb than with the tamer noun. The very essence of scientific research is to probe the edges of what is known, meaning that even the most talented scientists can only guess at the chances of success at the outset of any new research venture. What is true for individual experiments is true for whole research programs and whole lives in science. Some friends of ours from Catherine’s graduate school years, all of whom worked with some of the most celebrated scientific mentors in the world at MIT and Harvard, have gone on to gain tenure and major funding after a handful of years, while others with equal talent and training have lost one job after another in the restructuring of the pharmaceutical industry. To choose a career as a scientist is to embark on a journey whose end cannot even be reasonably guessed at from the beginning, no matter how great your talents or fortunate your choice of mentors and advisors.
Few scientists are exempt from the psychological stress that comes with this kind of uncertainty. The best scientists, who tend to be both risk-tolerant and optimistic by nature, harness it as energy for bold choices and unconventional experimental ventures; others can end up nearly paralyzed by the fear of making a wrong decision. Either way, their lives are shadowed by a degree of uncertainty that belies their relatively high professional status.
It might seem odd that a highly collaborative endeavor could also be isolating. And indeed, scientists generally find great camaraderie in their research groups and within their disciplines. But to practice science is also to accept a certain amount of isolation from one’s fellow human beings. Sometimes the isolation is emphatically physical — long lonely observing sessions at remote telescopes, all-nighters in a lab waiting for biological processes that take their own sweet time, or, in my wife’s case, needing to work in a lab in the basement (to minimize vibration) with no windows (to minimize ambient light).
But the isolation is also intellectual. The high degree of specialization science required means that even most members of my wife’s physics department cannot easily understand her current research, nor she theirs. Even more difficult is explaining one’s work to neighbors or to fellow Christians, and this isolation is all too often compounded by intimidation. Most lay people found science, and especially the mathematics that is necessary for the physical sciences, perplexing and confusing in school and were glad to be done with it as soon as they could. They are uneasy and inexperienced in talking about scientific research, so they quickly change the subject. This can make for very short conversations after church — or more likely, it means that scientists simply never get to share the joys and challenges of their work with most of the people they worship and play with.