An opinion column in the Toronto Star got me riled up the other day. It wasn’t the topic of the piece (TA and sessional labour strife at an Ontario university). It was that the columnist seemed to completely misunderstand, and thus misrepresent, the nature of the job I do as a tenured academic. This is, depressingly, utterly routine in the lay media: university professors are “a coddled elite…among the best-paid on the planet… teaching fewer courses than ever, and sloughing off research duties” (Ha!), and we “enjoy paid summer breaks from May through August” (double Ha!). It goes on, and if you really have to, you can read the whole thing here*.
As I read, I found myself thinking “Geez, this column makes it sound like I have the best job on the entire planet”. But here’s the thing: as a scientist, I DO have the best job on the entire planet! Not, of course, for the reasons the Toronto Star thinks I do; but nevertheless, I do. My job finds me doing three things that I just can’t believe a person can be paid to do. Here they are.
(1) I figure stuff out. OK, that sounds pretty pedestrian. But here’s the thing: not every day, but pretty often, I realize that I understand something about the way the universe works that nobody else in human history has ever understood before. Think about that: I’m a biologist, and at that moment, I know something about biology that Darwin didn’t know, that Hutchinson and MacArthur didn’t know, that Crick and Franklin didn’t know. If you’re a physicist, perhaps you know something that Einstein didn’t know, and Stephen Hawking still doesn’t. If you’re a mathematician, perhaps you know something that Poincaré didn’t know, that Erdös didn’t know, that Andrew Wiles doesn’t know. That thing that I, uniquely, understand may not be momentous – I’ve yet to discover a Grand Unified Theory – but at that moment I’m the only one who understands it, or ever has. It’s hard to express just how exhilarating a feeling this is.
(2) I tell people the stuff I (and others) have figured out. I publish, and people read (most of) my papers. I teach undergraduates. I go on the radio or write outreach pieces to tell non-scientists about nature. And nature is just so astonishingly, rapturously cool, isn’t it? Just think about the fact that male dragonflies have two separate sets of genitalia, that the digits of π go on forever without ever repeating, or that big pieces of Earth’s crust float and move so that continents break up, merge, and rearrange themselves. You couldn’t make this stuff up! Now, I just raved about the excitement of knowing something that nobody else knows, so maybe you’d think that as scientists, we’d hold our new knowledge close to our chests like medieval alchemists. But it turns out that sharing our knowledge doesn’t ruin it – it makes it even better.
(3) I get other people doing (1) and (2). When I take undergraduate and graduate students into my lab, they start to apply their own skills to pulling back the veil from nature and to passing on what we know. If anything in the world beats figuring something out for the first time, it might just be seeing someone else experience that thrill and knowing that you helped. In the classroom, I get (some) undergrads excited about science – or I feed their excitement if it’s already there. I help my students find effective ways to communicate what they’ve learned, both to other scientists and to the public. All this amplifies my own impact on science through the others I’ve been able to influence.
Now, all this might seem like it comes from a position of privilege. I am indeed lucky to be one of the ones who made it through the academic winnow to end up in a tenured professorship. But if you think about it, none of the three activities I’m celebrating here is restricted to university professors. You can do science in a museum, in a government lab, in industry, with an NGO, or as a citizen scientist. You can communicate science as a teacher, a journalist, a blogger, or that person at the family dinner who always has a story to tell. You can support people as they pursue science and science communication as a guidance counsellor, as a politician, as an administrator, or as a voter. All of my favourite things are open to anyone who wants to take a kick at the can – and the more people who do, the better.
But I get to do those things pretty much full time, and that’s why I have the best job on the entire planet.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) Mar 19 2015.
*In the columnist’s defence, when I criticized the piece on Twitter, he quickly retweeted my criticism. Perhaps this is only because controversy drives readership, but I prefer to think approvingly of people who not only accept, but help disseminate, critiques of their thought.