When I first conceived this blog, more than fifty posts ago, I set myself a limited number of goals. In essence, my aim was to try to encapsulate a lifelong love for the sciences by reflecting on some of the things that I do and experiences I have had in its pursuit; thereby, or so I hoped, others might be drawn by my passions. There was a self-centred motivation as well: I enjoy the process of writing; it helps me sort out my thoughts and make a little more sense of who I am and what I am doing. Were I not writing for myself, at least in part, it is doubtful that the blog would have continued for very long.
Given that I am no longer paid as a full-time professional scientist, having ‘retired’ from my former post as Professor of Materials Physics a couple of years ago, my contact with ‘things scientific’ has changed. There is some reflection of this in the previous post, here. However, this new vantage point has brought something into focus that relates to my blog’s original objectives but which I haven’t considered in a direct fashion hitherto*. My posts have, by design, omitted swathes of day-to-day life – even when events within it had a direct impact on being a scientist. That phrase, ‘being a scientist’, is at the core of the blog’s raison d’être but the emphasis has never rested on the word ‘being’. Thus, in this particular post I have decided, albeit in a generic rather than an overtly personal sense, to offer a reflection on that which links ‘being a scientist’ into the warp and weft of humanity.
Where better to start than with the thoughts of a couple of William Shakespeare’s characters. The very title of this post is an adaptation of lines spoken by the young Juliet in his Romeo and Juliet:
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet; so Romeo would, were he not Romeo called.”
More powerful, I think, are the haunting lines spoken by Shylock in The Merchant of Venice as he highlights a particular mindset within his society (- endemic religious prejudice against Jews in his case); I have edited in the title ‘scientist’:
“Hath not a scientist eyes? Hath not a scientist hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer …? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”
The point of all this is to lay claim to the fact that a scientist isn’t particularly ‘special’ in a qualitative sense. Were I a sporting person, a bricklayer, a nurse, a priest or a farmer I might therefore also write an analogous post on this theme – but I’m none of those things: I happen to have enjoyed a career in science. Scientists are neither sub-human nor super-human. This might seem self-evident; it should be self-evident. However, I have met and/or witnessed enough examples of scientists being stereotyped towards one end or the other of an imagined spectrum to know that bias, unconscious or otherwise, is far from uncommon. In truth, bias is endemic. We all suffer from it in multiple ways: it’s important to realise that it’s present since awareness can be an important form of mitigation against its effects.
Thankfully, I’ve no personal experience of being labelled a genius, and my entire career has been enriched by the joy of never having worked solo, but both labels may become attached to scientists as a way of categorising them. There was a time, particularly during the later decades of the last century, when I felt nervous about admitting in a social setting that I was a physicist: the development of nuclear weaponry, and many evils besides, might be laid at my feet by the proverbial prosecution. My protestations of innocence weren’t always effective. A little easier to handle are the often diffuse exclamations that emerged from an ill-defined, even visceral, school-induced fear of science – and physics in particular. In such situations the conversation could convulse to a rapid end without prompt intervention. I often respond by admitting that science is pretty much the only thing I’m any good at, and it’s usually safe to add that I couldn’t do what they do – whatever that is – even if I had another lifetime in which to try. We are each valuable for who we are, not for what we do. (In passing, I can't help but quote a favourite line from the recently-released movie Isle of Dogs, spoken by a student to a character called Yoko Ono: "Pull yourself together, remember you're a scientist!)
So, Doctor Who or Doctor Strangelove: shall we adopt a caricature? We so easily slip into stereotypes, but Juliet and Shylock both offer a better approach. I value and enjoy my ‘life scientific’, I always have, but I’m neither an evil genius nor a hero. I have been ecstatic at new birth and felled by bereavement, I suffer the same sorts of physical and mental illnesses as others; I love, enjoy, dislike and hate; I succeed and I screw up; I have insight and I’m in a fog; I disbelieve and I have faith; … just like you.
|Images: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ozg7gEchjuM and https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/nov/09/doctor-whos-hardest-task-yet-making-yellow-braces-happen|