Friday, March 30, 2007

Scientific Lifestyles

Yesterday I felt as if I had somehow collided with a wall; giving a talk always has that effect, I find. The day after I am so tired I can't seem to move. I can't understand why this should be so. Some people seem to take it all in their stride. They go from talk to talk, smiling serenely, relaxed-looking and happy. Not me. I enjoy giving my talks but they take a disproportional slice from my life. Perhaps it is just a case of getting used to it, but I have given so many of them now and I still feel the same. I am beginning to feel there is no hope.

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.


Blogger Gordon McCabe said...

I like giving talks too, but, almost invariably, they leave me with a huge non-metaphorical headache. This is the type of headache which is beyond the reach of Paracetamol.

Fri Mar 30, 09:58:00 pm  
Blogger Kirsty said...

I think in general we really underestimate the physical toll that intellectual work has. Combine that with the release of adrenalin for the performance aspect of a talk, then you've got a double whammy.

It must be nice to be asked so often to give presenations though. Such a tangible validation of your contribution to science communication. Personally, I would like someone from Australia to invite you to give a talk. Oh but then you'd have jetlag to contend with too.

Sat Mar 31, 02:35:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

GM: Yes, I get that too, a bit. Stress, perhaps.

Kirsty: Oh, that's a kind thought. I think you're right about mental effort. I can't remember where I read this recently - but some eminent scientist said that mental work is very energetic. We're not apparently moving anything, but maybe we are.

Sat Mar 31, 02:06:00 pm  
Blogger Marly Youmans said...

Your problem is that you have too much substance and too little burble!

Tell Gordon that a "brain freeze" from eating ice cream is excellent for a migraine. My eldest has said this many times, and recently my husband saw a medical article on it.

Sun Apr 01, 08:06:00 pm  
Blogger Jonathan Wonham said...

You're absolutely right about the draining effect of giving talks. I gave one on Thursday and have been exhausted for the last few days, sleeping a lot and unable to write. For me, it's to do with the build up preparation as well which can involve long hours of work.

Mon Apr 02, 06:16:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Marly: that brain freeze idea sounds really interesting - I'd love to hear the explanation - I expect it will filter down to the popular science mags soon.

Jonathan: Ah, glad to see I'm not alone. yes, the preparation takes days, sometimes, doesn't it? At the time I think - why did I agree to this? But when it's over I'm always gald I did.

Mon Apr 02, 08:22:00 am  

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