I am from time to time, a little cynical about science, research and particularly academia (it’s the bureaucracy that causes it). Indeed, you might notice the subtitle of this blog highlights that it’s all about being ‘irreverent’ about science. But as some of you might know, I actually love science.
I don’t mean I love science like ‘I fucking love science’ loves science. That’s an abusive relationship mostly filled with lies. No, I actually love it because it’s fun, enjoyable, and constantly leaves me little love notes. Although most of them read “equipment out of calibration”.
For me, there are lots of reasons why research is pretty amazing – Eureka moments, pride in seeing my work used elsewhere, and basically anything involving lasers – and not even the constant production of health and safety forms can dampen those. But there is one thing I love that is a more frequent event that gets a lot less attention but still makes me want to send science bouquets of roses.
You know what’s most amazing – being first. From planets to continents obsessed with deep frying everything, everyone wants to be the first person to either stand on it or discover it. Well, science is a place where everyone gets to do that.
I don’t by any stretch mean we all get things named after us or discover amazing techniques. I hate to break it to you but the chances of you discovering something impressive enough that everyone will let you name it after yourself is fairly small. Science is about collaboration and the whole ‘lone genius suddenly realising that dissolving teeth in condensed milk creates a cure for cancer’ is pretty rare.
I mean that, on a semi-regular basis, I run experiments that no one has ever run before. My lab note book is 25% data and insight that no other human being has ever done. That’s kind of amazing.
Obviously, a lot of science is running and re-running experiments that often aren’t your own. This is partially because those are the day to day experiments making the lab equipment tick over and not send all those coquettish messages.
But every once in a while I’ll try something new. A new prep, a new voltage or a new method, something that no one has ever tried and, as numbers flick on to the screen, for those few moments I am the only person in the entire world that can see that data.
Granted it’s mostly data saying that my experiment is behaving weird but dammit, it’s MY experiment and I’m the only one who even understands what ‘weird’ means. Sometimes it’s the fact that yet another compound doesn’t do bloody anything, or a survey that shows absolutely no correlation to anything – especially not the one in my hypothesis.
But for that moment I’m it, I am the entire sum of humanity’s knowledge of that fact. If I was suddenly to die, then humanity would never know that adding whiskey to food colouring makes terrible vortex rings. Some might argue that humanity wouldn’t really miss it and they probably have a good point, but who knows (probably someone smarter than me) maybe that is actually the one missing piece of an actually important puzzle.
Even more rarely, now and again (around the same time the moon takes on a cerulean colour) these experiments actually prove useful. And for a brief moment, just a few short hours, I am the only human on the entire planet who knows that really interesting fact.