Hey everyone! Last Friday, I wrote about the practice of science—what actually happens in labs around the country and what you do as a scientist. While that post achieved it’s intended goal—to portray the practice of science—it failed to capture something that I think is just as important: what it feels like to be a scientist. Contrary to popular belief, scientists are real people too, with emotions to boot. In fact, being a scientist is one of the most emotional jobs out there. So in today’s post, I’m going to write about the side of science that scientists don’t really talk about, even though I think they should.
The knowledge of humanity, accrued through millennia of hard work and learning, can be thought of as another Earth, a whole new world of information. This world can be broken into two regions, the Light and the Dark. The Light is what we know, what we have already hammered out the details of. We have mapped the mountains and valleys of Light. We know F=ma, we know K = ½ mv², we know E = mc². The lay of the land is clear and well documented. Most people live in the Light, working the land for humanity’s subsistence.
The Dark, however is a different story. Dark is the unknown, the unfinished, the unmapped. On the maps, it is merely marked with a single phrase: terra incognita. Unknown land. The Dark is made of the things we do not yet know, the laws we have yet to discover, the books that haven’t been written. The Dark is the mystery, the void, the lack of knowledge. In the olden days, unexplored regions of the globe were signified with the phrase “Here There Be Dragons”. On the globe of information, the Dark is rife with dragons.
To be a scientist is to be a dragon slayer in the Dark. Every day, scientists in their labs embark across the ocean in the ships of their imaginations, carrying torches to illuminate the night. It is a life filled with doubt and fear. The scientist never knows what is just around the river bend; the scientist never knows what tomorrow brings; the scientist never knows his fate. The scientist is surrounded by the Dark, but to be a scientist is to be unafraid of the dark. To be a scientist is to stare a dragon of doubt in the face and cut him to pieces with logic, evidence, and trials.
The scientist is brave, but not without fear. On the cutting edge of human knowledge, right on the border between is and might be, uncertainty is a given. The dragons of the unknown are deceptive, and the scientist must always doubt himself. Every day, he or she wonders if he is totally wrong, wasting years of work and more money than the scientist would like to admit. To be a scientist is to live a life full of anxiety and confusion. More often than not, the scientist feels they are bumbling about in the dark, stabbing at thin air, waving a torch madly, desperate to find the way but all the time unsure that the way is even there.
What keeps the scientist going? Why doesn’t the scientist give it up and go back to the Light? The Dark is so lonely, so uncertain, so hard. Why don’t we all run back to home? The answer is love. The scientist is pushed forward by a love of truth, of knowledge, and of learning. Science is a labor of devotion and of heart as well as an exercise of the mind. To my mind, the scientist is the last great romantic. The scientist devotes his or her life to pursuing their elusive mistress, the flighty beauty known as truth. Even though the scientist knows they will never catch their lover, every day they come a step closer.
It is that step that we live for. That step towards truth is what carries us through the darkness. That step is what we labor for. That step is what makes us wonder infinitely about the infinite wonder that is life.