I remember the day I told my English literature teacher that I wouldn’t be continuing with the subject anymore. He was disappointed that his subject had “lost me to science”, and so was I. It was one of my favourite subjects, and the only one I studied that really let me have true creative freedom. I got to read great books, and then choose the themes I was most interested in and write about them; I could learn about social and economic context of times and countries I’d never lived in. But I had decided that my future lay in the hard sciences, in biology, chemistry and maths. I knew I would always continue writing as a hobby. Nothing can convince me to put down a pen. I carry a notebook everywhere I go, jotting down interesting conversations I hear on trains in case they make a good story (so never sit near me on public transport unless you want your life to be documented); I embellish my dreams until they become the plot line of a novel, and of course, I write this blog. But I don’t think I quite realised the effect that writing this blog would have on me. As I’ve realised how little I enjoy the time I spend doing practical work in labs, and how much I still enjoy my time writing, I’ve been starting to wonder if science is really for me. Is it possible that science is losing me… to the arts?
I remember writing an essay on the representation of women in The Great Gatsby and The Go-Between, and being amazed at how much can be conveyed in just a few words. There is nothing I would rather do than immerse myself in a good book, with a notebook and pen by my side, and pick apart every sentence, analysing every word to work out the meaning and the subtext behind it all. I could think about the significance of Holden Caulfield’s red hunting cap for hours. But that’s what I love about science too, analysing, interpreting and figuring out what it all means. Give me some interesting data, and I’ll have a whale of a time, and I’ll be happy to tell you all about what I’ve found. Ask me to conduct the experiment, however, and my heart sinks a little. When I imagine myself in ten years time, I see myself sitting at a desk, typing away on my computer, with a cup of tea by my side, much like I am now, surrounded by notebooks filled with ideas, whether they’re scientific or not.
That’s not to say I don’t love science (I wouldn’t be writing this blog otherwise). To me, it ties with literature for the elegantly named position in my head of “most interesting thing”. It explains how the world works, how we work, and even why we feel the way we do. But I have always, always wanted to be a writer. Some say that “science isn’t for everyone”. After thinking about what that phrase means, I think it would be more accurate to say that scientific research isn’t for everyone. Everyone can learn about science, even if it’s just a little bit, to find out why your muscles ache when you exercise, or how our memory works. But not everyone who is interested in science is made for the labs or academia, and why should they be?
I’ve met a lot of people who’ve struggled with this same problem; smart people, who were good at science at school, college, university, and thought the lab was for them. It’s the career path you hear the most about once you commit to a science degree. For some people, the lab is somewhere they feel they belong, but for others, it’s not. Maybe your side of science is education, outreach or journalism? And that’s ok: in fact, that’s great. Science doesn’t just need researchers and experimenters; it needs writers, readers, educators, presenters. And this “arts/science divide” is ridiculous: we’re not so different after all; they’re both about exploration and interpretation, but they use different skills and different materials to find answers to their questions. Some say the difference between the arts and sciences is emotion. I think they’re wrong. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so much emotion as I have when watching a scientist explain the topic they’re most passionate about. Some say the arts aren’t intellectual. Again, one of the most thought-provoking and intelligent things I’ve seen is a the National Theatre Live’s production of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (so much so that I went to see it twice), or as insightful as the ending of The Great Gatsby.
Science hasn’t lost me. It’s just found me in a way I didn’t expected it to.