I’m writing from a ground floor room in Berkeley with fishbowl windows and a tv the size of my living room, after yet another meeting where I am left confused about what to do. This one was a small, collaborative meeting, and I was there as a notetaker, essentially — a fledgling scientist with a somewhat cloudy vision of the future of my field from the little I’ve managed to read on the subject in my spare time.
But as is typical for these meetings, I meet people, for a first time, second time, maybe third time… Names refreshed, the awkward dance begins. What are you doing next, they ask, and I still have no certain answer. The story comes out different every time, and all of it is true, but I’m sure I come across as a flake. I wish I could just say I want to be a scientist, but haven’t figured out what kind yet. Unfortunately, that doesn’t fly with the funding agencies these days. I need to be focused (and obviously applicable) to be fundable, which is a shame. Science has become a profitable enterprise, with measurable outcomes and a lot of bs about what we’re going to do next. Let me tell you something: it’s not science if you know what you’re going to do next. You don’t know what you’ll find along the way. Like any good recipe, scientific discoveries often start with a bundle of leftovers and a misstep or two. I think we’ve forgotten that, in our constant query, “But what will it do for us?”
I certainly don’t know what I want to do next. I apply for postdocs because I have some lingering interest in this field, and because I do believe on some level that what I do might matter someday, in ways I can’t predict. But beyond the tiny thrill that comes from placing a new level, seeing something new, I am crippled by the sense that this (in a very specific sense) isn’t what I’m meant to do. What enthralls me is standing in Moe’s this afternoon, picking through books on fluid mechanics and biology, radiation and evolution. I love the complicated stuff, in other words — the interconnections between all these fields, ideas, systems. Nuclear physics isn’t like that. We consider an isolated system, forget the electrons, forget the outside world. Yes, the field is relevant — we are, after all, ultimately a product of nuclear reactions in stars — but I guess I’m missing the wonder in my particular corner of science.
Of course, I may have just deluded myself into thinking something else is necessarily better than what I’m already doing here. I wouldn’t be the first to make that mistake, nor will I be the last. I just wish I could give something else a try without sacrificing what I already have here. Because it is a good life, in many respects, the people are fascinating, I like collaborations, and the opportunity to travel the world and meet new people is almost too persistent. The hours are long, but that’s true of most jobs these days.
And so, I’m left yet again with a dilemma I have no business complaining about. Which is probably why I’m posting on my (food) blog, which has morphed into a space for random (and sporadic) thoughts. As a reward to the two people that actually read this thing in search of food, I will say Pie in the Sky near Center and Shadduck in Berkeley has a pretty nice thin-crust slice, the Downtown Berkeley Inn really isn’t bad for the price, and the view from the LBL cafeteria is enough to make me consider selling my soul to the government. The food isn’t bad either.