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48 hours to go…some thoughts about science

December 5, 2007

I apologize that my posting is rather thin and light this week … my defense is on Friday morning so I’m a bit preoccupied. :)

Not necessarily crazy busy, like the days leading up to the handing-in-the-draft deadline, but simply preoccupied. I’m actually enjoying being able to focus on a single presentation for several days in a row. Typically, my talks at meetings end up going fairly well but I haven’t actually formally practiced a talk in years. I usually don’t have the time.

But, the presentation on Friday is arguably the most important of my scientific career thus far. Are the results of my research some giant breakthrough in sedimentary geology? Not likely. I think people (some scientists included) need to understand how science progresses — through incremental steps over long periods. Yes, there are certainly big leaps (breakthroughs) that are attributed to individuals or small groups of researchers, but those need to be considered within the context of the incremental progression. The breakthroughs could not happen by themselves. The breakthroughs get a lot of attention, but attention means diddly-squat in the bigger picture. Breakthroughs are a lot easier to report on and write about in popular media. But they, by themselves, are not what science is. It seems increasingly more difficult for people to appreciate the significance of the summed result of lots of science over many years (e.g., evolution). They want to point to a single person, or small group that is responsible (which also makes it easier to attempt to knock it down). Perhaps this simplified view is easier to grasp, but it doesn’t make it right. Those going into science, those kids that have an interest and curiosity, should appreciate the process and the bigger picture. If not, they may get disillusioned quickly.

Doing science is being a small cog in a giant wheel. Unfortunately, it seems this view is taken rather negatively nowadays. As if being a part of something bigger takes away from individuality. I think that’s a bogus viewpoint. If what I do ends up getting acknowledged beyond my small specialist clique, that’s great! But, I don’t expect it to. I’m not in science for fortune and glory. Surely, I would enjoy the accolades and try to capitalize on it (i.e., get more funding to do more), but visions (delusions) of grandeur certainly don’t motivate me.

If you are a student just beginning in science and have visions of being the “famous researcher” with all the press and talk show appearances, chances are you will not be that person…sorry. If you have ambitions of making important contributions to something bigger than you, then you are on the right track. I’m a huge fan of the notion “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. Science is bigger and more important than any one researcher.

Anyway…I started this post talking about preparing for this presentation. I got a little sidetracked. I guess my main point is that I don’t get frustrated that all this work over many years will, in the end, represent a rather small incremental step forward. I don’t view that result as something negative. I view it as science.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. December 5, 2007 12:25 pm

    Hey Brian,

    I am sure you will do fine at your presentation on Friday. Don’t stress about it too much. Judging by how clear you can be about your field here on Clastic Detritus, you should have no trouble at giving a well rehearsed seminar (for that is what your thesis presentation really is).

    As for being a cog in a larger machine, tell yourself that in such an enterprise as furthering human understanding of how the world works, each cog, each step, each result is important. That’s what I believe, anyway.

    You have my moral support for Friday!

    All the best, Alessia

  2. December 5, 2007 1:29 pm

    Great post. It really is important to remember that the little science, the science that doesn’t break paradigms and transform the field, is important work.

    And have a great defense. And enjoy the celebration afterwards. :)

  3. December 5, 2007 3:19 pm

    thanks for the well wishes!

    (my talk is still 10 min too long!)

  4. December 5, 2007 6:50 pm

    Good luck on Fri! I’m sure you will do fine.

  5. December 5, 2007 11:21 pm

    You will do a great job. You might actually enjoy telling them about the subject that you know better than anyone else. :)

  6. December 6, 2007 2:59 am

    I’m with Alessia – making a lasting contribution, rather than generating a few flashy headlines, generally involves small and careful steps, with an emphasis on getting the fundamentals right.

    I am now doubly disappointed to not make AGU this year, because I’m missing out on the opportunity to buy you a celebratory drink!

  7. December 7, 2007 6:54 am

    Excellent post. And let me say that sedimentary geology doesn’t often get much more interesting and more ‘breakthrough’ than your work in the Santa Monica Basin.

    Have fun today.

  8. December 8, 2007 7:19 pm

    Well??? How did it go? Inquiring minds want to know!

  9. December 8, 2007 9:41 pm

    Ron … it went well … I’ve been wanting to post about it, but I’ve been too busy celebrating with family and stuff in town … soon, stay tuned.

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