Sunday, July 23, 2006

Why would you want to do that?

I love my job. It lets me ask questions about the world around me and allows me to go out and try and satisfy my curiosity. One of the best thing s about my job is when I get together with other people who are interested in much the same things and we begin to try and nut out some of the things that either I or the others working on. Thus, there is little that I enjoy more than the opportunity to present my work to a small audience of professionals who are competent to ask me insightful questions and willing to engage in discussion. Not surprisingly, then, I try and present my work as often as possible – over the last five years or so I have done something like twenty presentations at conferences and at various universities and institutes around Europe. The best feeling is when everyone understands the problem at hand, adds something different based upon what they already know, and the result is that something begins to glimmer and become clear where previously there were only questions.

With the very best students, teaching is much the same – a case of sharing the knowledge and ideas, and seeing what comes out of it all. The very best students are constantly challenging the teacher – not through some pointless mule-headedness but because they think to ask questions that the teacher has not thought about or because they suddenly see something from a different point of view, forcing the teacher to do some mental athletics to also see what they mean.

I say all this because I have just read what I think is a great article about what doing science is like. It was written by Richard Hollingham, who is a BBC correspondent. He concludes the article thus:

When I chose to spend a month "doing" science, rather than just reporting it, I had hoped to get a sense of what the scientific process was all about.

There is no denying science is hard and experiments can be, yes, boring and repetitive. But the excitement of discovering new things, that passion of intellectual debate, is anything but dull and made me wonder why more of us don't do it.

I find myself wondering much the same thing when I look at what people do with their lives.

Sometimes I get people who don’t know me very well and find out that I am an academic come up to me and ask, “Why would you want to do that?” The obvious implication being that it is no way to make cold hard cash. If they are particularly obnoxious about it and I am feeling particularly mischievous, I lean in close and whisper conspiratorially into their ear, “For the money!” And then I leave.


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