Today I am preparing for another. I've been invited to a workshop at the LSE and have to give a short presentation there. The other participants look very interesting and as part of my preparation I am endeavouring to read their work. I've already completed FERMAT'S LAST THEOREM by Simon Singh (a stunning book) and he is going to talk about narrative non-fiction.
Today I am reading SCIENCE, NOT ART which is a book edited by Jon Turney, another of the speakers. This is a collection of ten scientists' diaries and very interesting it is too - although some of their lives seem a lot more glamorous than mine ever was as a research scientist. Obviously times have changed. Each of these scientists seem to spend some time jetting around the world attending conferences, brainstorming and writing papers; although this is balanced with an impression of the mundanity of scientific life. Experiments don't work, grant applications are turned down and papers are rejected for instance; all of which throws the moments of success into bright relief. A couple of them also have children and one has a pregnant girlfriend and it is interesting to see how these aspects of their lives fit in with the demanding life of a research scientist. Experiments rarely fit neatly into the nine-to-five timeslot.
I, in contrast, spent all my days as a research scientist in virtually the same spot, on a stool beside my bench around the corner from the poster of the page 3 girl stuck upon the wall. Sometimes, for a little variety, I would stand in front of a fume cupboard, and sometimes I would stand beside the sink attempting to rid my glassware of the burnt-on grime of my experiments. My lab coat was stiff and yellow with picric acid, and my safety glasses were reminiscent of the sort worn by geeks in fifties American films about the bomb. On very exciting days, when I had made enough of a particular compound to warrant running an NMR, I would make an excursion to the NMR room in the basement.
Oh, that NMR room. I always felt like apologising for my existence as soon as I entered. Sometimes I used to stand outside the door summoning up courage to grab hold of the handle. The technicians there used to glower at anyone who opened the door and any requests for help met with surly replies. I expect it was the effect of living without ever seeing daylight.
The book ends with a young doctor called Kevin Fong. Apart from being on call and grabbing very little sleep for nights at a time he is also involved in space science. His description of A&E and intensive care are moving in the extreme. After weeks with very little sleep in London he happily embroils himself in space research in Florida. He gives talks like I churn out words and I think he has far more reason to describe himself as tired than I do. Like several others in this book his story is inspiring.