Can I talk about chemistry? Can I be nerdy, veer off course and ramble?
Yes, I can. Unfortunately, it took me more than 15 years to learn this. In fact, I only had this revelation about 10 minutes before I started writing this post. The wonderful topic I was investigating was how could I make racemic sodium ammonium tartrate at home, crystallise it and separate the enantiomers the way Louis Pasteur did to make his way into history books in 1848. (Note: the series of reports made by Pasteur started in 1848 and culminated with this discovery in 1853. A list is available here)
My cause is not noble – I just wanted to make a Youtube video. But the flashback I had was of Proust eating his madeleine with jasmine tea proportions. Don’t worry, my prose is far more modest.
I was somewhat of a weirdo even in the chemistry enclave. My interests never lined up with those of others. Scientists, as you expect, tend to be pragmatic and think about the future, the next discovery. This is great, and necessary for their survival in today’s scientific environment. I, on the other hand, have always been inclined towards the past. I got excited about the stories of discovery usually reserved for textbooks and other materials made for the public.
If you’re not a scientist you might be thinking what is wrong with that? We learn from the past – that’s what history tells us. Scientists generally appreciate the teachings and will go searching the literature for information, but they don’t care that much about who did what and how they got there (not beyond the requirements of referencing anyway). And if the information is now common knowledge, any attempts to uncover the murky, distant past are scoffed at. This makes an onerous task a shameful one. Scientists don’t care much for the history of science.
Back to my experience; I remember working on my master’s project thesis. I had an intro that was a bit like a herpetologist touching on the likely anatomy of the biblical snake in the garden of Eden. Needless to say, it wasn’t well received by my supervisor. I had to cut out a lot of the work which made me so proud.
I was heartbroken and furious. That maybe some points were valid (the page count for example) is irrelevant. Always getting our work edited and aligned with the standards and interests of the majority is damaging. Yes, that is how we learn and improve. But in my case, that is how I completely lost direction.
I ended up being unhappy doing what I liked. I hated what I was doing because it was what someone else wanted. I always got told they wanted to help me. I eventually gave up on chemistry and tried doing something else.
I failed so far. I recently got sacked from a new job (not a chemistry one) after two weeks. But I am not bitter about it. I think it was actually the most honourable rejection I’ve ever received. There was objective evidence I couldn’t do it. I got given a chance for what I had to offer and for my dedication. This is opposite to what I had experienced in chemistry where what I had to offer and who I was never mattered. The only thing that mattered was whether I delivered exactly what was expected.
I am obviously being emotional and still bitter about my chemistry past. I can’t think of anything clever to say here to balance this statement. And the only problem is I feel I should. Here it comes (after hours of mulling). Part of being a scientist is seeing black and white at the same time. But no one cares about dull, grey complexities – Not even scientists.
And that’s a shame. I think part of the problem with modern science is that it’s focused on delivering scientific ‘products’ rather than knowledge. It’s focused on the future, on achievement. It’s creating solutions to predicted problems rather than current ones.
Problems are solved by experimentation, by study, by reflection. Solutions are always serendipitous. Asking scientists to plan their work and their discoveries is absolutely ridiculous. I remember I had to make a Gantt chart at the beginning of my PhD. I hadn’t even heard of one before – which is to say that the study experience doesn’t quite prepare you for this. What is worse, the work was planned around ideas that were already in place for my project. Ideas which were written before I had arrived.
How can you expect young scientists to develop the skill of coming up with ideas, if you waste all their time researching someone else’s ideas? Pasteur is famous for his statement: ‘In the field of observation chance favours only the prepared mind.’ I don’t think Gantt charts was what he had in mind.
Why is this relevant? Because scientists should care about what they are doing. If you kill their interest and their passion, you are losing your biggest asset: the scientist. I cared. I still want to care. It just bothers me seeing how few people care.
I probably can’t change that. I just hope I can find the strength and ability to convince other people how exciting science can be. To make them appreciate the story of sodium ammonium tartrate.