Beginnings – three simple words
Thursday 26th July saw the launch of SciLogs.com, a new English language science blog network. SciLogs.com, the brand-new home for Nature Network bloggers, forms part of the SciLogs international collection of blogs which already exist in German, Spanish and Dutch. To celebrate this addition to the NPG science blogging family, some of the NPG blogs are publishing posts focusing on “Beginnings”.
Participating in this cross-network blogging festival is nature.com’s Soapbox Science blog, Scitable’s Student Voices blog and bloggers from SciLogs.com, SciLogs.de, Scitable and Scientific American’s Blog Network. Join us as we explore the diverse interpretations of beginnings – from scientific examples such as stem cells to first time experiences such as publishing your first paper. You can also follow and contribute to the conversations on social media by using the #BeginScights hashtag.
I was involved in the I'm a Scientist: In the Zone project recently, and we got asked a lot of questions along the lines of "what qualifications do you need to become a scientist?" and "when did you become a scientist?". To me, these questions are sort of asking the wrong thing. Anyone can be a scientist, at any age. You don't need a qualification or a piece of paper to tell you that you're one; you just need an inquisitive mind, and a general fascination about how the world around you works. I don't think a day goes by when I don't stumble upon some sort of science news story or research that makes me think "whoa, awesome".
But most people (or, at least, the many that I've spoken to on the topic) who consider themselves to be scientists usually have a key moment in their lives where they can say with certainty that they knew what they wanted to be doing for the rest of their lives. It might have been the influence of a parent or teacher. Maybe it was reading a science article or book that got them hooked. Or, like me, it might have been the response to a simple question.
Why is it that mirror images are left-right reversed, but not upside-down?
When I started out at University, I wasn't at all clear what sort of career path I was going to take (actually, I suppose that's still somewhat true). I originally wanted to do Physics and Philosophy, because I enjoyed Physics at school, and had dabbled a bit in Philosophy at A-Level. When I mentioned this to my family and friends though, the idea was met with a fairly frosty reception. "You'll never make any money doing that", they said, and I got sucked in to the idea that I should be going to University to be able to get a well-paid job at the end of it. So, in what was probably the biggest mistake I've made in my education and career, I instead took up Computer Science. Now, don't get me wrong, I think CS is a pretty awesome subject. I just sucked at it. I mean really sucked. One of the programming tasks that we were given involved programming a bunch of digital robots to fight each other; some students programmed theirs to learn their opponents moves and adapt to them, mine just spun around in circles and faceplanted the walls of the arena. I'd never had any experience before I got to University, and in my naive, egotistical, always-got-decent-marks-at-school mind, it never occurred to me that I'd struggle at something, so it was a huge shock to the system when I did.
There was one saving grace about the whole fiasco, though. I was taking Psychology classes as an open unit, and absolutely loved them. So, to cut a long story short, I dropped CS, and took up Psychology full time. In getting to this point, though, I'd still never really 'decided' that I wanted to be a scientist, or train in Psychology. I'd just found something that I enjoyed, and wanted to do more of it. It wasn't until my second year, when I was taking classes in visual perception, that I stumbled on that question above. It seemed like such a deceptively easy question to ask. And it was one of the first times since starting Psychology that I'd been challenged with a question that I didn't know the answer to. I mean, it well and truly had me stumped; but, unlike my experiences in CS, the feeling didn't come with the usual levels of panic and worry. Because it was also the first time that I learned that it was alright to say three simple words: I don't know.
You see, up until then, I'd seen not knowing anything as a mark of failure. I struggled in CS because I didn't have any clue what I was doing. I was there, trying (and failing) to learn how to code*, because people had told me that it was the best way to earn money later in life. I'd lost the spark of curiosity and forgotten that there's tons of stuff that we don't know much about, but that's okay, because the exciting part of science is finding new stuff out. I didn't know the answer to the mirror question, but I was excited about it. I was excited, because it was a question about some every day thing, that when I found out the answer, opened up a whole load of questions about other every day things that I didn't know about, hadn't even thought about.
And that's the thing. To me, I don't know are perhaps the three most useful words that a scientist has, because of the four words that tend to follow them: so let's find out. When I figured that out, that's when I knew I wanted to be a scientist.
What hooked you?
*I eventually took up a PhD in vision science, a substantial portion of which required Matlab coding skills. The irony was never lost on me. Also, please don't ever read my code, unless you're feeling particularly masochistic.