Welcome to “the Ragged Human”. A lot of the stuff on The Greatest Minds.Org is really about Scientific Philanthropy- not so much the battle between science and arts/humanity, but the battle to use science to benefit humanity and the other creatures we share the planet with.
That’s all great and noble and everything, but actually making progress at so-called “scientific philanthropy” is something of a long-game. Science is inherently slow and conservative; it finds the “right path” by eliminating the wrong ones, one by one. Clearly that’s not what you might call a rapid way to move forwards. Then there are all sorts of political complications (this project doesn’t get funded because this peer reviewer doesn’t like that university or wants to do a rival project him/herself, or he doesn’t like that the scientist getting the grant is female, or Chinese, or one-legged, or lesbian…and as for the one legged Chinese lesbian, well, he certainly won’t be signing off on her ideas…). Ok, so those are fictitious examples, but while I’m on a roll, we could add a whole load of scenarios where rivals block each other’s papers as far as they can, or an entire department is badly mismanaged and favours one area above all others, simply on a whim. So, why so many examples? What is the point of all this? Simply put- my point is that science is imperfect and scientists, if anything, more so.
Even with the best will in the world, we all have good days and bad days. Sometimes we just have plain old bad luck and in some fields, that can last for years. It’s all rather reminiscent of that famous Thomas Edison quote-
'I have not failed.
I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.'.
The Irish writer Samuel Beckett expressed the same concept slightly differently-
“Ever fail. Ever failed.
No matter. Try again.
Fail again. Fail better”.
If that all sounds rather depressing, there is a flip-side.
We keep on going because what we are doing is fundamentally worthwhile. That sense of purpose was what drew me and countless others to science in the first place, and it is what keeps most scientists working through the day-to-day set-backs. We-they- are unravelling the secrets of the universe. Little by little, piece by piece. To spend your days doing such a thing is utterly fascinating. Add a few exotic conferences to the mix (all expenses paid, courtesy of the tax-payer), and, from time to time, it can be rather fun, too.
Ok, so much for science. “All very interesting”, you say, but that is only the first half of the story. Beneath the skin of every scientist is a human being. At times it can be hard to believe, but there you have it. A flesh and blood, fallible, mortal human with hopes and dreams and, perhaps, a few ideas about how the world could be a better place. The scientist is also a person, grappling with problems big and small, mortality and her place in the world- in other words, she is like every other animate being on this planet (and probably a fair few other planets, but we’ll come back to that elsewhere). I know that side of life very well.
There are times for all of us, perhaps, when it is easy to be all up-beat and altruistic and productive but there are also times when being alive- being- is a fulltime struggle: a tooth and nail fight, as it were. A person who seems, on the surface, to be thriving, can be barely managing on the inside. Yet somehow, we keep on going. Failing, making mistakes, learning from them- sometimes learning nothing at all. It is part of being human. Humans are fallible – at times we are flawed and torn and ripped and ragged and damaged in every imaginable way- we succeed and we fail. I certainly do both. It might not always be enjoyable, but it is certainly a rich learning experience. Not all of this learning is academic, either. Some of it is more pragmatic: stuff that is simultaneously more mundane and more fundamental. You might say that little portion of knowledge is about how to be human- ragged or otherwise.
That’s All from me- See you next time,
-M. N. Jones