Experimental Error: Most Likely to Secede

By Adam Ruben

February 25, 2011

I don't mean to brag, but in sixth grade I won the Science Award for Mrs. Lukoff's class. Lest you think the prize frivolous, I should stress that this honor -- accompanied, of course, by a certificate printed using the ultramodern Brøderbund Print Shop -- brought me legitimate notoriety among my classmates. They all paid close attention at the awards ceremony because, according to time-honored tradition, the recipient of the Science Award gets beaten up.

Someday, I thought while being stuffed into a trash can, I'll be a big, bad scientist. Then they'll all see.

I'll stand at a podium to receive my Nobel Prize. "Citizens of the world!" I'll announce. "People who used to beat me up! Hear me, for I have discovered a universal cure for all diseases! And would you like to know what it is?"

"Yes, O Wise Scientist!" the masses will cry. "Please tell us! We would like to learn your universal cure!"

That's when I'll smile. "Yeah," I'll say. "I bet you would."

Growing up, we were the smart ones. We were the valedictorians and the science fair champs, the celebrated nerds who read books for fun and asked for extra homework. Even in college, the brainy kids majored in science and engineering, and the kids who couldn't do math studied economics.

We thought we were the only ones taking this education thing seriously. We thought we would conquer hunger and save the planet and see our names etched among the luminaries -- or, at the very least, that we would design a computer capable of providing bizarrely off-topic responses on Jeopardy!

We thought we would rule the world. Then we got actual science careers.

I realized recently that if I examine it in a day-to-day sense, I have one job in science. It's not curing malaria, which is what my grant says it should be. My job, in essence, is to move small amounts of liquid from one place to another. That's it.

That's it? This is what smart people do? This is our reward for withstanding years in the trash can?

Most of us can't boast about the accomplishments for which we dreamed of being revered. If you ever want to see scientists get nervous, ask them how many actual lives their research has saved or improved. They'll say something like, "Um, ... that's not really ... uh ... what my research is about."

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama spoke of the need to educate children in science so as to compete with Chinese children, most of whom have Ph.D.s by age 5. It was interesting to witness the American response, as a challenged nation rose and collectively declared, "We don't need to compete with Chinese kids intellectually because we can beat them up instead, which we'll do when we're finished watching The Bachelor. Pass the Chex Mix."

It may be helpful to explore how we scientists arrived at our careers, starting from the beginning. Here, then, are the thoughts of a developing scientist throughout the education process, along with the science questions explored at each age:

A scientist in preschool: Yet again, the triangle-shaped block fits into the triangle-shaped hole. Fascinating. Analysis will likely reveal statistical significance regarding this fact, but first I should further explore the block's properties by attempting to eat it.

Science questions explored: How are plants different from animals? What are the parts of the body? How does food become solid waste? Which other child has a head made out of solid waste? What rhyming chants should accompany such an accusation?

A scientist in elementary school: This week, a man came to our school and talked about science. He wore a white coat, brought lots of gadgets, and made things explode and freeze. He must be the coolest man in the world! How does he know so much? I'll bet he has tons of friends. When I grow up, I want to be just like him, except maybe not with that weird moustache.

Science questions explored: How do tadpoles develop into frogs? How do butterflies -- hmm, it looks like we should go back to the tadpole-frog thing for another few weeks because you kids don't seem to be getting it. Ok, the tadpole -- can we pay attention, please? Eyes up front. Could we please stop throwing the tadpoles? I'll wait.

A scientist in middle school: Some of my classmates seem to have gotten large and confident very quickly. And the kids with the most friends are the ones who think science is lame. But I want friends. And I don't think science is lame. Ah, the eternal question: WWDHD? ("What would Don Herbert do?")1

Science questions explored: What is the difference between "weight" and "mass," and why won't you understand it no matter how many times it's explained? What is static electricity, and why won't you understand it no matter how many times it's explained? What is a hypothesis, and why won't you understand it no matter how many times it's explained?

A scientist in high school: The kids who beat me up last year are gone. They're off working or smoking things or being pregnant, while I get to take AP physics and learn how far a cube would travel up a frictionless incline when propelled by a spring. Important stuff! Hey, I even joined the Science Club, which seems to exist only to assure us that we socially rank above the Math Club. Except that most of us are also in the Math Club.

Science questions explored: How did human beings evolve? Just kidding. Your parents would kill me if I taught that. Let's just draw some more Lewis dot structures.

A scientist in college: Actual science researchers are teaching me actual science, and I get to take actual lab classes and wear actual goggles! Now I'm finally doing real experiments asking real questions -- provided those questions can be answered using scientific equipment from 1978. (Incidentally, that's a neat volumetric flask. Oh, I see, it holds 500 mL of water. I wonder whether that means it'll hold 500 mL of beer. Go science!)

Science questions explored: Why is Orgo at 8:00 a.m.?

A scientist in grad school: Uh ... uh-oh. I thought I knew what science was, but I was dead wrong. Apparently "science" means "work," and in grad school, it means "work for which I'm scarcely paid." Hello, high school acquaintance at my 10-year reunion! Oh, you work in finance? Neat. Wait, you have how many houses? Wait, your spouse is how hot? Me? Well, unlike you, I'm smart. So I work 14-hour days and make $15,000 a year. Because I'm smart. Stop laughing.

Science questions explored: Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy???????????

Postdoctoral fellowship: Seriously? I survived 7 years of grad school, and I'm still not a scientist?

Science questions explored: Seriously?

* * *

I put little stickers on several hundred vials this morning. That was my morning. Diseases cured: zero. Vials with little stickers on them: several hundred.

One accepts a certain amount of drudgery as the price of performing world-changing science. After all, it's called "lab work," not "lab fun." (Although it would be awesome to be able to say, "I did 5 hours of lab fun this afternoon!")

But at some point, we let the slog replace the dream, and we stop thinking of ourselves as thinkers, even advertising ourselves to potential employers by listing the techniques we've mastered rather than the problems we fantasize about solving. The high-minded ideals of science devolve, for many of us, into days and weeks of the liquid handling and button pressing we've been trained to perform.

Most of our work is meaningful, so when we find ourselves focused so intently that the details become the work, we need to take a step back. Recall the joy of playing with the triangle-shaped block, picturing a frictionless incline, or learning about the metamorphosis those tadpoles would undergo if only our classmates would stop throwing them. Remind ourselves that, in many important ways, our jobs do resemble our dreams, with the exception that we can now fill volumetric flasks with more expensive beer.

So the next time you have a long session of sample gathering, data processing, or, um, robot-being-like, ask yourself what would have fascinated you, as a preschooler, about your current work. Remind that preschooler that you're now a big, bad scientist -- dream accomplished -- and even if your day-to-day work isn't as glamorous as you'd hoped, you still have something to feel satisfied about the next time a colleague stuffs you in the biohazard bin.

___________________

1 The answer, of course, is that he would perform an experiment about surface tension in a fish tank in his kitchen, or he'd take apart an Atari joystick, and a neighborhood child would wander into his house and ask, "What are you working on, Mr. Wizard?" which was always a little creepy.

Adam Ruben, Ph.D., is a practicing scientist and the author of Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1100017


对我来说,这篇文亮点太多了,真的多到要整段整段的加粗的地步……
我标出来那句是我觉得最犀利的。

话说一开始觉得写文的这位很能掰很幽默,看到后来越来越辛酸。

每次遇到这种文章我都憋的慌,因为大多数时候只能自己一个人默默拍大腿叫好,根本没人能分享。每到这时候我总是觉得应该调整一下我的朋友圈= =,因为几乎没人会感兴趣这个,除了紧哥可能略有兴趣……
都别说文科商科的了,连和我同是医科的河马都表示没心情看naturesciencelancetcellnewengland这些杂志本身,而宁愿直接去看paper。(两者很不一样,每期杂志只有三分之一是最新paper,剩下的全是新闻啊评论啊综述啊掐架啊八卦啊神马的,当然是科学界或者医学界的,paper最痛苦)其他同行妹子跟我关系又没有那么热络=3=,只有河马是可以开玩笑说你到底在做什么动物做河马吗的……

这篇文后来那段关于tech和thinker的议论看的我辛酸的快流鼻水……尤其是那句找工作的时候会写上自己会些什么tech,而已经无视了自己是否是thinker。之前紧哥还对我抱怨说光是做实验没意思,可是太忙了甚至没有多少时间去思考,他觉得硕士博士最重要的都是思考而不是如何操作。操作是次要的。我只能说紧哥的想法和这作者英雄略同。话说虽然不同方向但是大领域相同,人家思路比我清桑的多啊……唉……
但是这个如果去和我的文科的朋友们说最多也是只能表示理解无法体会这种苦逼感…………

除了本身思维方式和视角以外,在搞科学技术方面又要被迫在一个英文阅读环境里生存的……除了紧哥我真的没有熟人了……我靠我交际圈太狭小了。而且这种虽然感情上感到很不爽但是理智上很明白不去多阅读多看就会死翘于是强迫自己自愿大量阅读的苦逼人士……也真没有多的…………


像这样把阅读学术杂志当做乐趣再过不久我他妈就要脱离社会了吧……求脱离社会的人士交往…………


说到这个,今天有个live上认识的基佬跑来问我我PSP能玩没有,而且给我推荐游戏。我当时正在研究室里,而且最近确实忙的要死,就对他说这礼拜catheterization快要愁死没有空去搞游戏(那个英文单词我真不知道该翻译成什么中文,我倒不是要装逼,我跟一个职业玩家装个屁的逼……这词日文直接是假名,我就知道操作方法和作用但我不他妈知道这个中文名叫什么,是个测心功的外科操作)。
那基佬跟我呵呵呵。
当时觉得很火大回了一句不务正业以后神马都是浮云,屁也玩不了。
我对这基佬本身到底啥来头不是很清楚,二世祖也好死neet也好,他给我的印象就是职业玩家,整天的话题除了游戏别的没有。对于一个在3D世界里又忙又他妈焦虑的人来说看到这种人我心里才只有呵呵呵,还凑上来就更让人烦躁了。

我好像每一年都要爆发一次对周围生活有目的又上进的朋友的羡慕,说实话那个“可怕的不仅是别人比你牛逼,而是比你牛逼的人比你还努力”……很现实,尤其是当你内心深处真的不想当一摊啥也做不成,只让爹妈和周围人愁苦的玩意儿的时候,唯一能摆脱困境的办法就是跑去加入创造生产价值的大军顺道实现人生价值。尤其是我之前目的无比模糊,人生基本得过且过,虽然也有在做事情或者达成目标,但是被动且拖拉的程度太过严重。导致我每次看到我那些好朋友死党之类的时候都觉得自己岌岌可危,尽管她们大多数会安慰我或者谦虚的说没有啦也就瞎混混,但你问他们打算怎么办的时候他们总能说的头头是道的。而且还有个妹子常常跑来和我商量前途神马的……导致我鸭梨更大。不过我每次绝对会鼓励她朝最好最有潜力的地方去,而且她成功了我会更高兴的要死……
她以前问我为毛我比她还高兴,我说自己没出息,看着周围有出息的朋友也好借光开心一下。

我说的每个字都是真心的。

总之最近又忙又焦虑(拜现在每礼拜汇报进度的规则所赐,还拜老师死也不肯放过我肯定每次点名所赐),那种每周一大帮人开会老师大庭广众叫了你汇报,结果缺啥也说不出来的丢人又可怕又鸭梨巨大的恐惧感一直在跟随我,促使我做什么都不敢拖,什么都要主动去问去搞去申请……就生怕哪个早晨在众人的眼光中变成最大的SB,而且也对不起自己的时间和精力,对不起老爹的血汗钱。
= =不过严格来说我倒觉得总算开心了一点,比起之前毕业前应付一样的赶论文还没完没了的打游戏刷XQ,学校都是爹帮着申请的,毕业后家里蹲等着签证下来却丝毫不肯去看任何专业知识,躺那混吃等死的日子,真的觉得舒服多了,虽然依然说不出10年后的自己会是怎么样,在哪里,甚至拿不出5年后的计划,但是像现在这样以周为单位完成任务取得一点小小的成就,我还是很高兴的。即使只是短期目标的实现,也会有点成就感的……

目标明确思路清桑的活着的人我总是很羡慕的,对于这一点我很庆幸虽然我本人是个糊涂蛋但我周围不少人都是好榜样……如果没有他们我估计现在可能是比那基佬还要职业的玩家,不,应该不会,我估计已经被我妈捅死了。坟头都长草了吧。
2011.03.08 Tue l 脚印日记 l 留言 (2) 引用 (0) l top

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只知道姑娘在日本不記得具體城市,望平安!
2011.03.11 Fri l F. URL l 编辑
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啊……谢谢,我没事=3=。还让你特意翻墙过来……其实我应该在这边发一篇说一声的,但是忙着刷新闻去了……抱歉。
2011.03.12 Sat l 熊猫. URL l 编辑

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