Windows On Theory

Labor of Love

New blog, first post, beginnings can be so exhilarating! But it also means another commitment and more work. So, why do it? The normative answer seems clear: Science is to a large extent about communication. Writing a blog can be conducive to research just like writing a paper, giving a talk or teaching a class. But is it only for the sake of science? How about fun? How about plain ego? I have been inspecting my motivations as a scientist throughout the years and my first blog post (especially on Valentine’s day) seems like a good place to share some of those thoughts (not to worry, more technical posts will follow).

I mentioned several motivations for what we do, but after all research is also our job, so how about money? As a graduate student I used to test my commitment to research by asking “would I continue doing the same if I win the lottery?” At the start, I answered with a naïve and resounding YES. This attitude kept me in school during those happy .com days. But over the years, the answer cycled between `yes’ and `maybe’ and `probably no’ (and was correlated with various other changes in my life).

If getting paid is not the main motivation, to what extent are we here mainly for fun? It reminds me that as a grad student I had a streak of (modest) results that turned out to be already known. I surprised myself by not being too upset about it. I guess that knowing I am able to produce ideas that were publishable was already very reassuring. I also enjoyed the joy of creativity and discovery. But still, I would undoubtedly not have knowingly worked on problems that were already solved …

In that case, perhaps we are here to get some well-earned hand clapping (figurative and literal).  If this is the case, we are probably in the wrong occupation. Though our community is extremely supportive, the ratio is quite low between effort and those brief moments under its very modest spot light. This is, by the way, one of the reasons I always preferred collaborating over working by myself. Who else will share your excitement over some local breakthrough (which is quite likely to turn up false the next day)? Perhaps of course the real audience we would like to impress is ourselves. Perhaps we are trying to prove to ourselves that we are the success we always hoped to be or the failures we always feared we were.

Each one of us has his/her own motivation. I personally find myself more and more drawn to the human connections (perhaps in a next life I’ll be a social worker). I cherish so many relationships and experiences with my colleagues, my mentors, and of course my mentees and students. No matter what my original motivation was, noble, wise or childish, I usually feel very lucky to have chosen this path. I hope that starting a blog would also survive the test of time. And for some reason, at this very moment, the voice of Billie Holiday is playing in my head: “ … nice work if you can get it. And you can get it — if you try.”