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Random thoughts of an experimental philosopher on passion, freedom, and creativity in science

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Topic: Science  |  Series: Reflections
crazcat.deviantart.comI am officially an idealist. I know it and I am not giving this up. I have heard many times "The sooner you lose the illusions about (your) life the better." And I would always shout out loud in disagreement! Yes, being an idealist sometimes fucking hurts… But it also offers infinite Joy & Love & Enthusiasm. No matter how hard you get kicked one day, you can fly the other. And that’s worth all the possible pain or disappointment!

Without any surprise, I entered into science with lots of ideals. I thought of the science world as a community whose members have the same interests and goals. Whose members are all playful, and passionate, and curious, and widely open to anything new. I was convinced we are all united in science. Later I recognized it is not quite true. And even though I have met several scientists who would fit this vision of mine, it is nothing you can take for granted.

Science has recently become very competitive and scientists have become fighters. Fighting between each other for more papers, higher impact factor, neater results, richer grants, and for prestige. Moreover, the overall impression one gets is that if you are not working your ass off, you are not surviving in academia. Not published for more than a year? Get lost! No papers –  no grant – no money – no science. One would further assume that if you have not experienced at least one breakdown and one burnout you are not working hard enough.

Do not get me wrong, I think it is actually great to work day and night on something you are passionate about. However, the passion is the essential part. Without passion it is just a work you have to invest your energy in. A passionate work, on the contrary, feeds you and allows you to grow in it. Most of the scientists typically work with the vision of a (the) great paper. Most of them do not start working in science because they would be passionate about it or because they would like to research a particular topic they have been keen on. (Unfortunately it is actually pretty difficult to do so with all the academic demands, rules, and expectations.) Most of the scientists pursue a scientific career since it is the logical step in their academic life – bachelor, master, doctor… They do not ask why they are doing the research. They are doing it since that is what they were taught to do. There is either no passion from the start or the passion gets lost within the rules of academia some time later.

What I love about science, or about my vision of science, are (not necessarily in this order) the independent work, the discussions, the learning, the moments of surprise, the discovering, and the creating of something new. These are things I am passionate about no matter how general they are. I have always been a hard worker; when I pick up an activity, I always put my soul into it. And I was definitely ready to do so with science, too. However, I am realizing that I am actually not willing to sell my soul to science (or better to academia) for the PhD degree, for a better postdoc position, or for a Nature paper. I am not willing to give up my out-of-science world for the chance to be solely a part of the scientific one, where passion and curiosity are not the indispensable forces any more.

For someone a good scientist is a person, who is capable of carrying out an independent research, and for the other someone who is enthusiastic about the scientific work. However, the general ranking of academia is that you are the better scientist the more publications you have, or the higher impact factor journal you manage to publish your results in.

For me a good scientist is certainly not defined by either number of papers, or H-index and average impact factor of one’s published papers, or by number of hours spent at work, or by number of articles studied during a weekend. A good scientist for me is someone who is merely enthusiastic and passionate about her/his work, who is curious, who has a broad scope of other interests, knowledge, and who has the eyes open to look at the world outside of the lab. Before the word scientist was coined for the use that we know, this profession was described as experimental philosopher. And indeed, every scientist should have a bit of a philosopher inside.

Therefore I think that to be a good scientist necessarily requires to have free space & time – for observations & thinking. This is what I heard from a scientist leaving science to work in a completely different field: "It is the ideas that make the difference. Not the hard work exclusively. If I started science again, I would do it differently. I would find more time for thinking."

Why are so many scientists forced to stay focused on their research project, to produce more and more research articles, write new and new review papers?

Why should a scientist be judged when not showing up at work for a few days because of hiking in the forest where (s)he gets the inspiration, or because of reading about psychology instead of doing chemical experiments when the book is actually so much inspiring?

Does a brain still have any capacity to be creative after 12 hours of a daily laboratory/PC work?

And how many creative impulses does it get when you keep your focus on one thing only?

It is not only passion that is needed for a good bit of a scientific work, it is also the freedom to do other things than science. For it is the freedom that makes you creative. And I am afraid this is not what the current scientific world has always available to offer. But I want to believe it can be done differently.


"Fall in love with some activity, and do it! Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn't matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best. Don't think about what you want to be, but what you want to do. Keep up some kind of a minimum with other things so that society doesn't stop you from doing anything at all."

Richard P. Feynman

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