Studying the science of life can become quite troublesome at times. The more you discover about its molecular underpinnings, the less of one you seem to have. This gets complicated even further when you do pathology based research, i.e. you realise everything can give you cancer. Therefore, many molecular biologists are forever trapped in a complex universe of experimental procedure and paranoia. One can easily start to prioritise the agonising hours of grunt work over writing up a coherent thesis or collaborating with more experienced researchers, leading to a continuous spiral of optimisation rather than a journey of novel discovery.
Currently, science postgraduates are heavily plagued by the skill requirements for industry jobs or grant approvals. So much so that their quest for knowledge is replaced with the development of new techniques or analysis tools that only enhance experimental procedure. Which is great for both data output and industry, although in my experience, such development is often done more for the sake of one’s CV than it is for saving mankind. As a result, the actual writing and integration component of research seems to be lost. Article writing has become replaced with mere data reporting and subsequently, the development of a potential cure for disease becomes synonymous with becoming a human cyborg.
Given that many of our once valued human abilities have become automated –from computation (thanks Turning), to driving (thanks Google), to even article writing (thanks but no thanks Auto Writer) – one can imagine that becoming more robot-like might be the dream of many a researcher. More quality data produced in less time equals a more prestigious career. When taking into account the surplus of PhDs and Postdocs for the actual amount of research jobs available, the environment becomes cut-throat. Adding to this dilemma is that, over time, cyborgs lose the ability to feel. Changing the environment from cut-throat to apocalyptic.
Taking all of this over exaggeration into account, it becomes quite apparent why scientific journal articles -and scientists themselves, for that matter- are often described as cold and blunt. Conveying statistical significance is not exactly something one does with great poetic flurry, especially when you are competing with machines for deadlines. So, seeing as technology is here to stay, what can one do to prosper in such a rigorous atmosphere? With no offence to Darwin, adaption nowadays is fairly easy. Simply right some code and survive. However, making a legitimate novel contribution to your field and becoming successful takes something beyond the binary.
As early as 1878, J.H. van’t Hoff, who would later become the first Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry in 1901, stated that scientific imagination is directly dependent on creative activities outside of science. Many know about Einstein’s love for the violin, yet this held true for many other Nobel laureates, such as Wilhelm Ostwald (1909) and Ramon y Cajal (1951) . Even the late celebrity scientist Carl Sagan, when asked why he included a music record on the Voyager 1 space probe in 1977, was quoted on saying that we are feeling creatures. Which was made quite evident by Richard Feynman’s constant bongo playing. Upon further investigation, this trend seems to stay constant for scientists who haven’t made the headlines (yet). It turns out that the National Institute of Health, better known for their cutting edge medical research, realised it had so many musically gifted staff-scientists that they formed their own philharmonic orchestra in 2005 .
It seems as though the secret to being an exceptional scientist is to invest more time one’s ability to feel. Be it through music, art or dancing. It has been well established that playing a musical instrument relieves stress and enhances neuronal plasticity, which can enhance problem solving skills and make a person more efficient when working under pressure.
So, next time you feel like giving up and letting the machines take over, pick up that old guitar in your friend’s living room. Join a choir on campus (we have about five of them). Graffiti inspirational quotes on your bedroom wall. Start writing a blog. Anything that will keep your creativity alive. And before you know it, you’re thesis might just become a bit more bearable. You might even make a breakthrough. All through being more human.
“The greatest scientists are artists as well.”-Albert Einstein
1) Powel, K. (2015). The future of the postdoc. Nature News Feature. 520, 144-147.
2) Root-Bernstein et al. (2008). Arts foster scientific success: Avocations of Nobel, National Academy, Royal Society and Sigma Xi Members. Journal of Psychology of Science and Technolgoy 1(2), 51-63.
4) Wan, C.K. and Schlaug, G. Music Making as a Tool for Promoting Brain Plasticity across the Life Span. The Neuroscientist. 16(5), 566–577.