I have recently been doing a bit of live on-line virtual commentating. Strange but true.
I’m not sure exactly why. Perhaps it is another of my frustrated ambitions to be a sports commentator (of which more later). Or an online journalist.
Or perhaps it’s just an excuse for not blogging. *Coughs*
Note: those who are not chess enthusiasts may wish to skip the next two paragraphs.
Anyway, this last week I have been supplying some spontaneous as-it-happens online updates on the games of the World Chess Championship final eliminator match. The six-game match was between the Israeli (and former Russian) Grandmaster Boris Gelfand, something of a chess veteran at nearly 43, and and the much younger Russian GM, former child prodigy and rising star Alexander Grischuk. I was following the games live online (chess and the internet turn out to be rather a good mix for this) and found myself supplying “Sit-Rep” updates on my favourite English chess internet forum.
For my small number of chess-enthusiast readers (I can think of three, but then again that’s probably half the regular readers of this blog) here are links to where you can find my comments on Game 2, Game 5 and the final, and decisive, Game 6 (start at the first comment and carry on down the thread). Gelfand’s narrow victory means that next year’s World Chess Championship match will be contested between two players over 40. This has, understandably, been a popular result with chess players over 40.
Anyway, enough chess. Why am I telling you this?
Well, the reason is that in a roundabout way it got me thinking, again, about the difference between having a job, and having what one might term “a vocation”.
To state the obvious: for most scientists who work in laboratories, especially over an extended period, science is more than just a job.
Some express this by telling you science is “their hobby” as well as their job.
Others express their obsession – and for many it is certainly close to that – in a different way. One question I used to ask my friends who had made “Principal Investigator” (PI or lab head), usually in the pub after a few beers, was what they would do if they won several million pounds in the lottery tomorrow.
Would they keep working at the University?
Rarely, if ever, did any of them say they would quit work. Or even work at something else.
A more typical response was from the yeast molecular biologist who told me:
“Well, I’d buy a nicer house, of course. And I’d stop taking any salary from the University. But I’d keep coming to work – of course I’d keep the lab. It’d be great to live off the interest on the winnings and just do the research full-time – not having to please anyone else by doing any teaching or administration. That’d be brilliant”.
Now that, I would say, is what would be called – were it medicine, for instance – a vocation.
Or how about the following story:
Around a dozen years ago now, I attended a FASEB Summer Research Conference in Colorado. These were/are small events (less than 200 participants), a bit like the perhaps better-known Gordon Conferences, and taking place in the Summer in the empty ski resorts of the rockies (and now in other locations too). The Calcium one I attended ran (and may well still run) biennially, in alternate Summers to the Calcium Signalling Gordon Conference.
At these FASEB Summer meetings, like at the Gordon Conferences, it is a tradition to have an outdoors-y activity on at least one of the free afternoons. This activity usually seems to involve water, so at the Gordon Conferences in New England I have been canoeing a couple of times, as well as hiking. In the Rockies the equivalent watery activity was whitewater rafting, and as this conference was in Snowmass Village, outside Aspen, it was rafting down the Roaring Fork River.
So, with eight of us in a raft, plus the guide, life-jackets on, off we went.
It turned out to be a rather ill-fated trip. Our guide (who was kind of a blowhard, in US parlance) soon managed to get us stuck fast on a big rock in mid-stream, with several metres of fast-flowing, and at least shoulder-deep, water on either side.
“Climb out onto the rock” he yelled “we gotta get out so we can float the raft off.”
Which we did. Unfortunately, his instructions didn’t extend to telling us ahead of time that we would have only a second or two to get back INTO the raft once it was un-stuck.
The predictable upshot of which was that off went the raft, with only half of the passengers in it – leaving me, and three other calcium types, stuck on the rock in mid-stream.
As we stood there wondering what to do, a raft appeared full of folk from a different conference.
“Jump!” they yelled.
Being the nearest to their raft, I did. Luckily I landed in the raft, rather than in the river, and on top of what I later discovered was a molecular microbiologist. I was a bit winded, but at least I avoided the fate of my three fellow maroon-ees. who eventually had to be thrown a rope and then wade/be hauled out to the riverbank through shoulder-to-head-high (and very cold) water.
After all this, you might think we, or at the the three that got a soaking, would have been excused the rest of the excursion – but no such luck. We all, it transpired, had to complete the trip. So back we went in our raft, with our guide, and off we went again.
Our guide sensed that he was not exactly Mister Popularity by this stage. So in true guide-leader style, he decided to get us involved in a game to foster team spirit and togetherness.
“Hey Guys” he yelled, “I gotta really great game we can play. Everybody has to think of the TWO JOBS you’d most like to do in the world. You know, if you could do ANY JOB. Any job at all. Then we’ll go round the raft and people can say what theirs are. Best job wins!”
“OK – who wants to start?”
Well, I am known for always being prepared to fill up conversational gaps with random verbal static. [This is known in the Elliott family as “Irritable Vowel Syndrome”]. So I piped up.
“Sports commentator on cricket on the radio“. I said. “Or a cricket writer for the Guardian“
And then we moved on to the next person.
Or rather – we didn’t.
I bet you can guess the punchline.
Yup. Not one single person out of the other seven scientists in the raft could think of a single job they would rather do that be a scientist. Any job at all.
Which helps to explain why I find it so tragic that – as we have discussed repeatedly here at Occam’s Typewriter, and before that on Nature Network – the supply of people who want to do scientific jobs, who have trained for many years to do them, who are really good at them, and who truly have a passion for them, far exceeds the supply of jobs there are for people to do science.
I think I would say that this is the biggest problem I have seen, close-up, over the course of my career in science.
What should, or could, be done about it, though, I have no idea. Perhaps other people do.