Dr Matthews, I presume?
A lot has been building to this: a lifetime of obsession with physics and discovery; four years of hard study; about three and a half of the most exciting years of my life, working on the ALICE experiment; eight months of balancing an awesome career in nuclear physics with the mammoth task of writing a book…Now, at long last, my PhD journey is finally over: viva painfully anticipated, prepared for, worried about and finally completed (“Surviving a viva” blog to follow); minor corrections exacted; final edit of thesis printed and submitted to be hard bound for the library; I will graduate this Christmas and henceforth be known as Dr Matthews (…at least, for a few months. Then I will get married and become Dr/Mrs Chater.)
I am now buzzing with the notion that I have somehow passed the grand test of being a scientist. People say you don’t feel any different – it’s not true. I do. A younger me would say, “This is well mint”. (I used to insist that my A level in English Language was a license to use language “creatively” – to indulge in slang and occasionally use certain nouns as adjectives as I deemed appropriate. Actually I still do this!) This has been the biggest challenge I have faced to date, and now that it’s done it feels like I can finally start believing in myself.
I think lack of confidence can be an issue for many scientists. It comes in all shapes and sizes: from causing mild panic or reservation with a looming challenge, or feeling nervous talking about what they know for fear of scary questions; to shying away from responsibility or limelight and feeling faintly like a fraud sometimes. In fact I think in general a lack of confidence makes science very difficult. I’d love it if any readers who feel this is true for them could comment. It can be really damaging to a person’s learning – you start out wanting to understand something, to find the correct way of thinking about it; but you don’t want to be seen as foolish, you don’t want to make a mistake or look stupid, so you start to withdraw from asking questions. You internalise your confusion and the problem becomes more and more intimidating. One tiny bit of confusion, if left unchecked, can leave a person so lost they start to disengage from the subject area and it starts to seem a bit like another language.
However, scientists are all about asking questions. They are all about getting it wrong. They are all about being unafraid of looking foolish. Why is this? It is because all of these things are essential for advancing our knowledge of the world. We have to test what we think to be true and adjust our current thinking accordingly, even if that means throwing out a huge misunderstanding and looking mightily silly in the process. If we are shown to be mistaken, we change our view to a more correct one. Being wrong, then, isn’t something to fear but something to embrace and accept. I want any aspiring scientist out there reading this to promise themselves that whenever they are confused, stuck, puzzled, lost, or just curious, they will always find the bravery to ask; whether that means trying it out in an experiment, reading papers on it, getting their pen and paper/calculator/text book/whiteboard out, or literally finding someone who knows and insisting they explain and explain until the penny drops. Does anyone remember Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon fishing through a ball pit, desperately trying to mould his surroundings to make sense of the behaviour of electrons in graphene? (a great blog about this is here) This is the kind of commitment to getting answers I am talking about
And those of you out there who can call yourselves bachelors, masters or even doctors of science, have achieved something remarkable – you are now qualified to ask anything from the biggest questions in science today to the most seemingly daft questions you can think of, and when anyone threatens to call you silly you
can simply say, “Ahem, excuse me. I am a scientist…and there is no such thing as a silly question when it comes to science.” Just like my A-Level English Language gave me license to be creative, I am hereby giving scientists everywhere license to be bludgeoningly inquisitive. We owe it to today’s budding scientific thinkers to set this example.
I wonder if “bludgeoningly” is a word…