Why bother doing science?

Science as aesthetics


It’s a pretty typical Sunday evening for me: staring down through the double-barreled eyepieces of a microscope, my foot pushing a pedal up and down, up and down, blue lights flickering on and off, on and off, staring at the vulva of a worm. I pick up a small plate, consider a few of the worms carefully, then move them from one plate to another. Labeling the plate, I move it to the side and repeat the process.

It’s strange what happens when you stare at subtle variations of the same body again and again. Ever so slowly, a sort of idealization is revealed. As I work my way through worms found in the wild, mutant worms and transgenic worms I find a certain pleasure in considering the worm I move. It must be a certain type of slender, move with a certain sinuous grace and, most importantly, have a perfect crescent vulva — only one, mind you. With certain strains of mutated worms, I’ll get the task over with as quickly as possible. But with some of them, a quick glance at their bodies reveals a beauty, pleasure, contentment.


The life of a scientist is strange. I have steadily been working on my current project for three years. Every little experiment I do, I have to wonder: did I do it right? Did I do something subtly wrong? Better try it again and hope that the results aren’t due to the sudden humidity, to a quirk in my timing, to something else I would never guess. And through the three years I have bits and pieces of yes, maybe, okay, I don’t know. There is no feedback, no right or wrong, no you did something good. Three years of winding your way through what, something you hope to be meaningful? At the end of which, if I am incredibly lucky, I will get published in a top-tier location where I can expect maybe 30 people to refer to me over the next couple years. Three years of my life so that a handful of people will refer to me in their work for a couple of years! That is my reward — if I’m lucky. When I tell people that I am a neuroscientist they always ask back, hopefully, “A neurosurgeon?” I explain what I do and they look away uninterested: worms. Five researchers working on these worms have won Nobel Prizes. But importance is not the same as respect, is it?


As always, Feynman said it best:

“Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars — mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one — million — year — old light. A vast pattern — of which I am a part… What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?”

Sometimes I must sit in a cave where there is no light save for the flickering blue of a fluorescent beam, shining down on some contraption out of the mind of a mad-scientist. Spending the whole day lightless, hunched over this contraption, leaves me utterly drained. I come home and turn on Netflix: in its typically obscure way, it recommends that I watch Dead Man, by Jim Jarmusch. A confused Johnny Depp is an accountant in the Wild West going by the name of William Blake. After he gets a bit lost in the wilderness, he meets a Native American who decides that Depp is the reincarnation of the eponymous poet. He is told, “That weapon will replace your tongue. You will learn to speak through it. And your poetry will now be written in blood.”


I recently bought a fish. He spends most of his time hovering in a hypnotic stillness. Although he seems slow, when frightened he will make a sudden sharp turn around to get away. I see this and I know. I know how it works: it comes from a neuron called the Mauthner cell. Present in fish and amphibians, the tendrils of this cell reach out to provide fast information to other neurons to make the animal get away. This behavior isn’t confined to fish, though. My precious little worms do the same thing. Animals, backing up, running away, doing the same thing.


The greatest art pulls you out of who you are and touches your inner core. It surprises you and gives you an appreciation for the world. I sometimes wonder why I do science. It is certainly not for the money. Is it worth the daunting hours, the relatively miserable pay, the lack of feedback or recognition? It never seems like it is until you pull together those hours of seemingly meaningless experiments and digital data points — and find something new and surprising. I have created knowledge, I understand the world a better. I can see new things, things no one else has seen.


David Hume relates a story from Don Quixote to illustrate aesthetic taste.

Two of my kinsmen were once called to give their opinion of a hogshead [wine], which was supposed to be excellent, being old and of a good vintage. One of them tastes it; considers it; and after mature reflection pronounces the wine to be good, were it not for a small taste of leather, which he perceived in it. The other, after using the same precautions, gives also his verdict in favour of the wine; but with the reserve of a taste of iron, which he could easily distinguish. You cannot imagine how much they were both ridiculed for their judgment. But who laughed in the end? On emptying the hogshead, there was found at the bottom, an old key with a leathern thong tied to it.

At the end of the day, I can taste new leather. I move the wine of knowledge around my tongue, tasting new things, my mind skittering through ideas and stories. I understand.


The institute where I work held a big celebration, in the way that scientists do, in honor of Roger Guillemin. Old, eminent, white-haired old men gave talk after talk celebrating his life to an earnest, if slightly bored, audience of young scientists. When I saw the posters hanging around campus, I idly wondered who this guy was. What did he do? I went to my laptop and looked him up: not only was he a professor at my institute, but he won the Nobel Prize.

Incidentally, another Nobel Prize winner works in an office right near mine. He’s an older fellow that does not come in much anymore. Sometimes when I’m out in the courtyard, I see him shuffling in on his way to work. There is nothing to distinguish him from any of the other visitors, and the number of people in science who would recognize him on sight — even in his own specialty! — is probably a couple dozen.


I recently commented to a friend who had left the scientific career path how depressing it was to think about how underpaid scientists were. He asked whether I really thought we were — and if so, why so many are scrambling for the few positions. Everyone has their own motivations, their lust for glory or desire to conquer all in their path. Whatever it is for others, it is fundamentally the aesthetic reasons that drive me.


Photo used according to the Creative Commons license, by Zeiss Microscopy