My Emotions in Science

First off, apologies that I have not blogged recently. This is because I have been pushing hard on a large, consortium paper, and it felt bad to have a public evidence of not working on it when I was asking many other people for pretty continuous effort over a protracted period of months. This is not entirely logical – we all actually need some diversity in what we do scientifically, even when we’re on a big push, but somehow makes sense sociologically.

That consortium paper has (finally!) been submitted (of course not done yet; there will be review. I have all fingers and toes crossed on that), and the sheer physical relief that gave me has made me think about the emotional, personal connection I have to science – I think in common with many other scientists, I have a very visceral connection to my work – emotion is bound up not just with the successess or failures, or the interactions with people, but also, for me, with the very direct doing of science – the thinking, mulling and frustrations.

Here are my “big emotions” in science.

The relief – of a large body of work done. Sometimes this feels almost like a mental marathon, and at the end of the race you cross the finish line and just ache and half-collapse. Some neurons seem to be physically hurting from overuse, and just want a week of you staring into the middle distance not really using them. You know – or you hope – that once recovered you will be proud of the race and the effort, but at the actual time of completion you are just thankful it is all over. This is the emotion that I had last week.

The thrill – of when you see a new result for the first time. At the moment this is usually watching the spinning cursor wheel on my computer end for a R plotting session, and – eh voila – some plot. Previously it has been the final cat/sort/more of some large data processing pipeline, and sometime in my very distant past, the peeling off of an autoradiograph from a gel (northern blots if you are interested). The best are the cases where any of the outcomes are interesting – correlation means X, whereas non correlation means Y. I get a physical tingling of anticipation in these cases, and can spend a moment or two in silence thanks that I’m the person who gets to see this tiny piece of science for the first time. And then you have to think about artefacts, and other tests, and how to plot best, the right statistic etc etc.

The satisfaction – of removing a bug in the code. There are times when you are sure that X should work, but the program is crashing, or (worse still) giving the the wrong number, and one sets off to debug the system. As a computational scientist I think this is far easier than my experimental colleagues – in developing a new method there are so many steps that could go wrong, and often you have the start, patiently at the beginning, that I suspect this sense of complete mastery when it all works must be even stronger.

The frustration – of not understanding something. Often there are two bits of data, or two ideas that somehow wont merge together. One ruminates on this – turning the ideas over in your head, or trying to recast one of the datasets or problems in a different way. The most frustrating is when you feel they should interconnect, but don’t quite. This can be quite distracting, and often when something like this is happening I have a small frown on my face and not very good at social interaction (my wife is very tolerant of me in this mode, and it has taken me years to realise how socially inept I am when I am really thinking about something). This frustration hopefully leads onto…

The ‘aha’ – of gaining new understanding. Calling this a ‘Eureka’ moment is too strong – and it is telling that there isn’t really a commonly used english word to describe this emotion (I wonder if in other languages there is a word?). For me I can almost hear internally the “click” when I have rearranged in my head some ideas and they now fit. I definitely have a statistically higher chance of this happening in the morning (in the shower is my normal thing), but I’ve been known to leap out of bed at 5am in the morning getting very excited about some new insight.

The delight – in learning about a new area of science, explained by a excellent scientist. The best scientists can do this is to an audience of hundreds providing deep insight in a succint way. More commonly I find myself in a one on one, asking questions and getting appropriate responses as one explores an area with a someone who thinks about it every day of the week as a personal guide

The ‘esprit de corps’ feeling when a group scientists in an area come together. Sometimes these are these large consortia, but as often for me they are about a field coming together and seeing progress – sometimes there has been a closely contested race, or disagreement on some point, but even with that competition one can feel part of the same broader team in an area.

I am sure there are more, and indeed, I’d be interested if these emotions resonate with others.

5 Replies to “My Emotions in Science”

  1. Great post! I relate to nearly all of these (though haven't had "The Relief" in a while). Lately it's been too much of "The Despair" that nothing you're working on is likely to be useful or important.

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