Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The birth of science fiction

I have decided to invent an entirely new literary genre. Stories about scientists and the world of science. Just as the bookstores, movie theaters and television channels are teeming with tales of detectives, lawyers, doctors and billionaires, soon they will also be crammed with the misadventures of scientists, comic, tragic and otherwise. I would call this new art form "science fiction" -- but some scoundrels have already taken the label.

Why would I bother doing this?

Part of the motivation to write this blog was to try to convey what being a scientist is really like.

That hasn't worked very well.

I did not want to talk about the details of science itself. That would tell you as much about the life of a scientist as an explanation of the workings of a jet engine would tell you about the life of an airline pilot. Plus, there are plenty of other people out there working themselves into a frenzy of strained metaphors and contorted examples from "everyday life", all to convince you that science really is very simple, even though it is not. (I dispensed with that "Nature is a book" nonsense last week.)

I did not want to talk about myself. The specifics of my day-to-day working life are almost as dull as yours'. Besides, if I dutifully reported my impressions from all of my encounters with students, postdocs, research collaborators, and other faculty, I would soon be writing a blog about what being a scientist was like.

And that is the real problem. I want to talk about the people.

There are so many crazy and funny and frustrating and heartbreaking and exhilarating and hilarious and painful things that have happened to me and all of my academic friends in becoming scientists, but I couldn't put any but the most mundane on this blog without pissing someone off.

One of my early methods to convince myself that a career in science was worth it (a robust collection of lies and self-delusions is of course essential), was that everyone I met was a "character" -- every single one of my fellow PhD students was an amazingly, unexpectedly fascinating and unusual specimen of humanity, but also well-informed, smart, hard-working, and dedicated to making sense of reality. Even the ones who eventually quit -- and perhaps especially them. Those were the incredible people I wanted to spend my life working with. And now I want to talk about them.

Even more, I want to talk about the assholes. In academia, some of those good people leave, but all of the vile people stay. Worse: many of the honest and fresh quickly turn sour and rotten. I've seen many an irrepressible student's idealism slowly crippled by a cancer of cynicism and desperate ambition. Including my own.

I want to talk about those people. All the egomaniacs and the workaholics, the jerks and the dictators, the fakers and the fuckwits. I'd like to wash them all out of my memory and on to the screen. To flush them away in a foul river of frustration, anger, shame, guilt and disgust. But I can't name them, and I've already discovered that to tell their story with a few changed names and vague locations doesn't protect me.

So there's no choice. I have to go all out, and mash and grind and pulp these people and experiences, and pump them through my beleaguered subconscious, and fictionalise the whole damn lot of them.

Yes, my fiendish friends, you're all going to be in there. All your pettiness, selfishness, and scheming; all your naked ambition and your cloaked backstabbing. Don't worry, no-one will recognise you from the time you stole your collaborator's glory, or screwed over your student, or devoted an entire week just to bullying citations out of colleagues. I won't be a second-rate Miss Lavish. No-one will know you. But you might know yourself. Like Claudius after the play within the play, you might run screaming from the room, crying "Give me some light!" But don't worry, the next morning you'll feel fine: guilt and remorse are not your style, and I'm probably giving you too much credit anyway: you wouldn't be where you are today if self-reflection was in your bag of tricks. And in all likelihood your tremendous ego will keep you safe, and you won't see yourself at all, but your biggest rival instead. It'll be fun for everyone.

Should you worry? I'd love it if you did, but I don't think you're capable.

Will it be all bastards and screw-ups and fakers? No, that would be boring. There are good people in science everywhere. I work with them every day. They will show up, too. But as you may be able to tell, there are others I'd like to deal with first.

But before that, I will try something a bit more modest. I need some time to disentangle myself from the habits of my usual fictional form, the research article. "The remainder of this paper will be set out as follows. In Sec. II we provide some background to exaggerate the significance of the minor result we will report in Sec. III." That sort of thing.

I will start with the story of my crazy summer. Suitably embellished, of course. The story will proceed as follows. There will be several sections, and at my current rate of embellishment, they may well get us to Christmas. In the first section my past indiscretions catch up with me, and I run away to India. It starts next Tuesday.

Let the science fiction begin!

Next: Part 1. The Journey Begins.


  1. Finally!!!
    I was afraid this was turning into a TV show reviews blog.
    Looking forward to Tuesday.

  2. I have to relax somehow. I hope you can endure one more Doctor Who review before Tuesday.


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