The failed objective

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for einsteinwiki.jpgI dumped one of the course objectives from last year. 

Norm Freed, the now retired Dean who assigned me this course, rightly argued that a course objective should be to explain to non-scientists why science so impassions scientists.
That it does impassion is clear.  But why?  I have no explanation that will work on an 18 yr-old non-scientist.
Answers on a post card.

12 thoughts on “The failed objective

  1. Andrew Read

    I have asked various of my colleagues about this, and none have (yet) ventured a postcard. But one did point out a blog entry by Ayusman Sen. The bottom line seems to be it’s good to devote every waking hour to an unachievable life mission.

    No rational person is going to buy that.

  2. Anonymous

    First of all, scientists are curious people–not all humans are curious. And they like doing puzzles to which they can find out the answer and BE RIGHT. Being right feeds the ego. And many scientists would rather live in their minds rather than feel those pesky emotions and deal with not so great childhood that many experienced. Where can one go to be right, get major approbation for living in the mind, and not actually have to hang out with too many other people? And we can add in there as a wonderful motivation, that some want to help humanity. That last is where I ended up after all these years, but it is not where I started. I have a sense that some of the younger scientists are more balanced and actually have that as their main motivation.

  3. David Hughes

    I am one of Andrew’s colleagues and a science geek. I have worked on insects and their parasites from tropical and temperate forests across five continents. So a lot of squelching in mud to find things and the usual laboring at the lab bench. I think about science a lot and for me it is a vocation. It is what I am rather than what I do.

    So, why the passion? I have to say I was stuck when first asked by Andrew about this and gave certain answers that could be applied to anyone with a vocation from NBA star to concert pianist. But going home I remembered the real reason.

    I see things that others don’t and that motivates me and provides passion to go on. There are two ways this works.

    1) In my work on little bugs on the forest floor I know that I discover things which no-one has ever seen before. Many would say that in the grand scheme of things the activities of little bugs in some far off forest are not so important. But that misses the point. The activities that are valuable don’t have to be those that the majority of people take part in. Something can be important even if only a few- or even one- person gets it. Sometimes I have been the very first person to piece together some puzzle of nature and that is amazing

    2) What is even more amazing and impressive is that the Science I do (bugs on the ground somewhere in the middle of nowhere) is really unchartered territory. And since humanity is destroying this territory and since most science is in labs and far from the forest floor then the following fact is true: I could possibly be the only human ever in the entire history of universe to find it. Imagine! No-one saw it before and the forest is going so what I find could not just the last chance to see but the only chance. Ever! In the history of life.
    And if this sounds far fetched it is not: one of my field sites in Brazil is the Atlantic rain forests which have already been decimated by 93% and global warming is literally burning the animals and their fungal parasites out of the remaining patches. Recently we discovered some new fungal species and possibly in five years they will be gone.

    I have a passion for science because it offers not just a privileged view of how life works but sometimes a very private view too.


  4. Andrew Read

    I asked Norm Freed why he thought it was important for the students to develop an appreciation of what gets scientists excited about their work. His reply:

    “You may recall the old saying,”If you don’t know jewels, you’d better know your jeweler,” implying that if you are not knowledgable about jewels and are considering an expensive purchase, you’d better have a great deal of confidence in the knowledge and in the honesty of someone whom you can trust who can advise you on these matters. Your students are not likely to become scientists or even know a great deal of science but they will quickly find that their adult lives, their careers, and their livelihoods will be affected by science and technology to an ever-increasing extent so that any efforts to help them understand and appreciate scientists better cannot fail to help them find their jewelers.”

    And I agree: the obsession we scientists have for science is an important part of what we are.

  5. Andrew Read

    So I pushed Norm to give a reason for our passion about science that would make sense to an 18 yr old non-scientist. His response:

    “Maybe you could say that passion with one’s work is not a trait unique to scientists. My wife’s field is Romance Languages and I realize that she is no less passionate about analyzing the works of a hitherto unknown 15th century French poet as I was in understanding final state interactions in meson-nucleon scattering. A business student can be highly passionate about formulating the subtleties of a hostile takeover, and so on… My guess is that intellectually challenging work in any field can excite the passions of anyone in that field although I say “can” because not everyone in every field (including science) is passionate about what he’s doing.

    Perhaps you could ask your students what aspects of their studies made them passionate and tell them that the scientist is just as passionate about his work as the student was about his/hers.”

    And I might just try that. But perhaps this is the nub of the problem. Is there any explanation for a passion for obscure 15th century French poets that would make sense to me?

  6. Karin Foley

    It seems to me that most people find it easy to be passionate about something that they consider important. I think the challenge is to explain why science is important to the non-scientist and why the apparent minutiae of science research is in fact important. To an outsider, the problems that any one research team are working on seem trivial and unimportant.

  7. Clive Copeman

    Boy, this is like asking someone to describe the taste of mushrooms.

    First, I agree with Norm. Most of us are passionate about something. There are the Andrews, water rats who keep that passion focussed over the course of a lifetime. There are the Clives -toads who find it easy to fall in love with a passing motor-car, if only there were time enough to spend a career’s worth of time on that, the gypsy cart, boating, guitar, harmonica, fly fishing, women, home brewing, and the next shiny thing that comes along. Even folk you might think stoats and weasels can experience passion unlocked in the group experience, often for football or the mayhem that surrounds it.

    Zo, to understand ze passion, ve must dissect ze orgasm. What’s the scientific buzz all about? Plenty of us like puzzles and mysteries, so I think the Aha moment does it for a lot of us. For those of us who have the mental stamina and faith in the coming reward to put in a little skull sweat to understand the underlying principles, reading or playing a part in an unfolding science story must deliver a strong mental reward. For readers, it’s the “…wait, I see where you’re leading me…. oh yeah, thought so… cool!” experience. For practitioners, it’s the “looking good, looking good… there, I told you so” buzz.

    I can also appreciate the passion that keeps people working on a problem past the point of good enough – massive amounts of effort just to make the relatively small step from “pretty well does it” to “f**kin’ nailed it”.

    I’m sure there’s a combative buzz for many. Beating a rival and dominating intellectually must be just as arousing as physical victory for the winner and his fans. How else do we explain the existence of Kissinger and Hawking’s girlfriends?

    It also seems to me that a scientific endeavour contains all the elements of the classic heroic narrative. Hero, call to action, goal, obstacles, stakes, jeopardy, reward. We’re wired to make sense of personal stories like that, so must get satisfaction to find ourselves in nice tidy narrative roles. Even if it’s the villain.

    Control? Designing and being in charge of an experiment, marshalling and deploying resources must be satisfying.

    Money. Not so much.

  8. Anonymous

    I agree, that to excel at anything, one must be passionate about it. But rather than try to define what inspires passion in order to get someone else passionate, maybe we should ask what is passion, and how does one get it? A person will never achieve greatness without it. Nor will they ever truly enjoy what they do all day without it. In my opinion, passion is knowing that ones thoughts and opinions are valid enough to go against the dogma of the masses, even at the risk of ridicule. Look at the greats… Einstein, Thoreau, Wright brothers, Feynman, Galileo…
    These folks saw that there was something greater in the world than what “the lady gaga” of their time wore to the event last night. Those thoughts and conversations revolve around the “who, what and where.” The greats concerned themselves with the “How and the Why!”
    Passion, like energy, can never be created nor destroyed; it always exists in some state. Some states are closer to entropy and have little use left in them, but the rare gem is the passion that is newly discovered and has the potential for greatness.
    Whatever it is, find your passion, ask Why, and most of all DAMN THE TORPEDOES go for Greatness!!!

  9. Kelli Hoover

    Wow, this is an interesting question and fun to read others’ posts. Why am I passionate about science? It’s like trying to explain to someone why you love your partner. What matters to me might not matter to anyone else. For me, doing science is a high, a vocation that I would carry on even if I didn’t get paid. I learn something new everyday and never get bored. I wake up at night thinking about science. I go into a trance driving thinking about science. It’s something I live, eat, and breathe. As said above, everyone is passionate about something, or they are probably very boring or depressed. But specifically why SCIENCE? It is an opportunity to think way out of the box, to “go where no man has gone before.” And in doing so, we often solve problems that benefit the world. Without science, we wouldn’t have antibiotics, we wouldn’t have won World War I (DDT to save the allied soldiers from typhus), we wouldn’t know why plants don’t need to walk … and we wouldn’t keep asking why.

  10. Nancy Ostiguy

    Hmmm… I think many people can understand being passionate about something. As others have said people are passionate about anything from their football team or television program to classical music or great literature. Science is not unique for inspiring passion among its practitioners. Science is also not unique for its ability to improve human lives. Feeding the soul is as important as taking care of the physical requirements of people. Science, medicine, engineering, art, music, and literature all improve human existence but in different ways. Science is not unique in asking when, where, how, or why questions either. Those interested in 15th century French poets also ask when where, how and why questions. So why science rather than engineering or sociology? Why did I switch from my first declared major of Psychology to Biology? Science provides much greater freedom of thought. We are not only asking questions about things which humans can influence but also about how the world (and beyond) “works”. What greater thrill can you get than to understand (and communicate to others) the intricacies of nature? We didn’t create nature but we can understand it. I am motivated by the desire to know what something is, how it works, how it is connected to other things and just the sheer wonder of the world. What other field can you spend your day getting paid to ask questions to which no one knows the answer, design experiments to attempt to answer the questions and contemplate the inter-relationships among things to arrive at a better understanding of how the world works? I think David is correct when he said that part of the reason for why scientists choose science is that science has more frontiers than any other discipline. You can address/learn about the unknown and unexplored every day. Unlike thrill seekers, e.g., climbing Everest, sailing alone across the Pacific, etc., who risk death to do things that few have done, we are able to do daily (or maybe only yearly) what no one has ever done and whenever “it” is done there is always a new “it”. And the risk of death is minimal.

  11. Jessi Waite

    It’s not hard to be passionate because:

    1) I decide what I want to work on each day, and what I work on are the problems and questions that I find most interesting
    2) The more you work the more interesting the work becomes, which isn’t true for many other “jobs” (or are all scientists just obsessive?)
    3) My co-workers are smart, highly educated, share similar interests, and it’s really fun to hang out and discuss ideas with them
    4) Being a scientist really appeals to the picky detail-oriented part of me, and also to the part that likes to daydream about what if and why
    5) It’s an ego boost when you can say “I saw it first” to feeling that “I was clever enough to figure out what is going on here”, and often you get to be an expert on some topic, which is pretty cool.

    And last, we’re all curious about our world, and it’s awesome to feel more connected to it by contributing to our collective understanding the life and processes around us.

  12. Dale Clayton

    You can see what I do at

    Why the passion for science? Because it’s the most fun I’ve had with my clothes on… or off, for that matter. My wife is also a biologist who works on the same topics I do. We study birds and their parasites. Among other things, we get paid to run around the world finding species that are new to science. It’s easy to be passionate when you can wake up in a new exotic locality and say “Ahhhhhh, just another day at the office!” My students roll their eyes on field trips because I actually say this. Every day. And it feels GREAT. I worry that one day a big hand will reach down out of the sky, tap me on the shoulder, and a big voice will say “Here’s a shovel jerk, do some REAL WORK”.

    I am passionate about trying to solve hard questions. This comes from any early interest in magic, I think. I used to like to read about Harry Houdini and other magicians who were masters of illusion, such as sleight of hand tricks. Nature is filled with illusions and mysteries. It’s fun to try and design an experiment that provides a solid answer to a hard question. In my case one such question is why parasites are often specialized to live on just one type of host. This doesn’t make a lot sense. Wouldn’t it be a better strategy to be able to feed on ANYTHING? In fact, why be a parasite at all and have to depend on a host?

    I am motivated by the following eternal truth (from that renowed philosopher Ferris Bueller): “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it”. I am terrified by the prospect that one day I will wake up and discover I wasted my life pursuing someone else’s agenda. My solution is to spend my days working on the things I loved as a kid, such as birds and bugs and mucking about in the woods. So I guess I am passionate about the subject matter of science, but also the intellectual, emotional and physical FREEDOM it provides me

    How do you decide if science should be a part of your life? Here is one suggestion. Give yourself a day off (or at least a few hours). Now go to a well stocked bookstore; a Barnes and Noble will do for our purposes (not the library because it has too many books for this task). Go to the science section. Start looking through the books one by one. Read the blurb on the back cover, the table of contents, and thumb through the book a bit. Don’t spend more than a minute or two per book. If there are books you are unhappy putting back on the shelf after a minute or two that’s O.K. Pay particular attention to those books. Don’t worry about what you know or don’t know and for God’s sake dump any guilt about what you were supposed to learn in some awful class in high school or college. By the way, many scientists – like me – were poor students in traditional high school and college classes. Look through the books and see if they make you FEEL something. Are there photos of incredible rocks or birds that get you excited? Do you feel excited by the logic of a mathematical equation? What would you pay to be in a chimpanzee’s skin for 60 seconds? What would it be like to walk on Mars? If someone invented a time machine, would you want to go back in time? Or would you want to go forward in time? How far?

    Grab the most exciting piece and give yourself permission and time to dig deeper in the coming days and weeks. It doesn’t matter what the topic is. What matters is YOUR level of interest and whether the more you learn, the more you want to know.


Leave a Reply to Andrew Read Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *