Bubbling beakers, blazing Bunsen burners, boiling broths and a book. Not just any book, a lab notebook. Each page a record of an attempt to “tear off the mask of Nature and stare into the face of God,” as Sheldon Cooper so humbly put it. The key word here being “attempt.”
Here’s an aspect of science that doesn’t seem to make its way out into the general public very often: science is full of attempts, and no matter the talent of the scientist or the extent of the delicately planned protocol many of these end up in failure. In fact, most scientists (biological, at least) I’ve touched on the subject with put the failure rate at 80–90%.
Movies and television often misrepresent science as an almost guaranteed thing; discoveries will simply be made so long as enough time is spent in the lab. The truth of the matter is, sometimes people will spend their entire lives trying to answer a question that simply cannot be answered. Others will stumble across the wrong answer and have to effectively discount an entire career’s worth of work. And yet, despite these challenges, there are those that don’t flinch or falter, pushing forward with their experiments no matter the odds.
Why choose a career where you will so assuredly be faced with failure on a regular basis, you might ask? Because there is nothing in life as exciting as making the first discovery. A rush, a sudden high and subsequent trip of euphoria in knowing that, even if for a brief moment, you know something about this existence of ours that nobody else has ever known. You, singularly, are the protector of new knowledge; your notebook your shield, your pen your sword.
And then, just as quickly as it came, the feeling fades. The data are analyzed, re-analyzed, chewed to bits and thrown in a manuscript. While beautiful, it isn’t as fresh and shiny as it once was. It’s published, acknowledged, and out there. Despite being a solid contribution to the scientific community and something to be proud of, it no longer brings the same sense of exhilaration.
Then the itch begins. The need, from deep within your core, to make another discovery. You hit the lab again, looking for that same feeling of wonder, sending shivers down your spine and filling you with life. It can take months, even years, to find it again.
This is the masochism of science. The willingness to suffer the pain of hundreds or thousands of solid, sincere attempts ending in failure just to find a moment of bliss in discovery.
And I love every minute of it.