One of the most enduring mysteries of human evolution seems to me our utter uniqueness amongst ourselves. As I’ve met up with a variety of ex-classmates over the last few months, most interesting has been the lifestyle choices. Out of a fairly small, (mostly 1 x 1 mile) area, an amazing divergence has developed.
One person becomes a teacher, another a transcriptionist, another a cultish self-styled biblical “expert”, another a dealer in Vegas, a message therapist, and the list goes on. We all grew up together, spent years of schooling learning the same things, had many of the same experiences as youth, yet we go on to quite divergent careers. What was perhaps to be expected, but still a shock was just how few went on with their education in any fashion.
This is something I have thought long and hard about, at least from time to time. Traveling down any road, highway, or street, especially at night, often gives rise to such thoughts. I peer at homes, seeing lights on, and wonder at the lives of these unknowns. What separates the ice road trucker from the nuclear physicist?
If you look for answers, I have none. I merely raise the question. The issue often comes up for me again when I view any type of science or nature show. Always I am met with the dinosaur expert, the expert in late Paleozoic plants, the experts in fruit bats. They are sometimes comical. They nearly shiver with excitement at the discovery of a frog in Brazil, or a new fern in Patagonia. They are wild-eyed with joy at their discovery.
We return to their labs and find their treasure of 3,542 individual fire ants. After 32 years of meticulous collection and examination, they are ready to put forth a well supported hypothesis of why the fruit fly female gets busy after sex instead of sleeping as usual. This is “shocking” and thrills their colleagues. I can’t begin to imagine spending 32 years on such drivel.
Another decides it is fruitful (no pun intended) to determine whether chimps enjoy music as we do. I’m not here to criticize the choice of research. Oh not I. I would not presume to guess at the long term benefits of such knowledge. I read only yesterday on some body’s posting, a paraphrase of something Einstein said, “We have no idea what we are doing. That’s why it’s called research.”
Well, that all got me thinking on how one with a scientific bent decides on the sub/sub/sub speciality that they will devote their entire lives to. Some of it no doubt relates to what really turns one on, but again, I ask you, how orgastically thrilled can one get over the el Nino effects on Pacific squid? I mean, okay, for a month or two, maybe, but for years? Come on. Be serious.
Another factor may be one’s aptitude, and here I can see the point. Rather dull scientists obviously must choose carefully those things they can actually understand. And no doubt there are dull scientists. There are certainly dull lawyers and dull doctors. I can absolutely assure you that there are, so there must, ipso facto, be dull scientists.
One is tempted to think that most of them end up at Kellogg’s testing new varieties of frosted flakes. I certainly don’t know where the bone yard is for not so bright “scientists.” Perhaps they always work under someone else, and wash a lot of test tubes. You may know better than I on this.
Another factor, undoubtedly, is how much recognition one desires. If you are the type who wants to be known as a “world-renowned” scientist, then I suspect you are going to sub yourself to death, finding the most obscure area where there is small competition and your mere entry into the field will nominate you almost immediately as being “one of the foremost in the field.”
I mean I got to think that you are in a pretty small group if your “passion” is prehistoric dung in the African plain of Kenya. Perhaps it helps in making you seem not entirely weird to announce, “I specialize in dung, but I am a world expert!” I recall a wonderful Catholic priest who loved to announce that he was an expert in masturbation, having written his doctoral thesis on the subject, but that’s an entirely different story.
I guess, and this is speculation (when has that ever stopped me?) that scientists fall into their specialties for pretty much the same reasons the rest of us fall into ours. It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Some of us stick to it for a lifetime, others of us, change boats at various ports of call, and have a list of “occupations” over a life time. Another part of our uniqueness I guess.
So now that the holidays are in full swing, I’d suggest you spend some time thinking about this wonderful subject. It will keep your head on straight as you maneuver the landmines of professional style shopping over the next several weeks. If you come up with any answers, pray do tell.