I love movies. Especially when they show cool scientists doing crazy science. It doesn’t matter if it would take 500 million times the energy of all nuclear weapons on Earth combined to stop the rotation of the Earth’s core. When scientists in a movie tell me that it “just stopped rotating, oh dear god help us, and the only way to reverse armageddon is to blow up a nuke in it,” I believe it completely for the next 90 minutes. I am not one of those scientists that shake their heads at all the pretty colors in test tubes, millions of blinking lights on machines with no possible purpose, or how a particular drug or mutation allows one to use not only the usual 10% of their brain, but a whopping 100%. I actually enjoy such fantasies, no matter how absurd they become. I see them as extra ammo for my arsenal, since I use these elaborate machinations as a motivational tool.
In real science, there is less action. Fewer machine guns. Only rare moments of grand victories. Of course, it’s not only these victories, this promise of shaping the future, that fuels us scientists. We are pushed by a fierce curiosity about the world. We are thrilled by eliminating some of the possible answers to important questions. We relish having one of the very few occupations where you can learn something new every day. We enjoy regularly clashing ideas with colleagues. But we also get bogged down by the mundane details taking the largest portion of our time. If you are a Ph.D student, no matter how much fun you have doing research, at one time or another you will find yourself extremely bored because you spent hours looking for beakers or repairing a pump or debugging messy code. It is wise to develop countermeasures for those moments.
My secret weapon was fantasies of ridiculous movie science. During college I delved in mechatronics a bit. Although even the name of the program, Mechatronics, sounds like an anime about robots that shoot lasers out of their eyes, most of the time I was tediously calculating resistance values or frustratingly trying to get some software to control a couple of sensors correctly. When I felt down, I would imagine a preposterous movie scenario and play it out. It is the cold war. These circuit schematics are stolen from the Russians and contain the plans for a secret satellite weapon of mass destruction. They will fire in thirty minutes unless I figure these out and stop them. So, the resistance at the end of this bridge comes out to … 12 Ohms. Oh no. Those clever bastards. They will trigger an earthquake right under the White House. Perhaps I could cause a short circuit, causing the satellite to explode, if only I could calculate this next resistance… The extremity of the exaggeration actually helps sustaining the game: It’s easy to keep it going if you laugh at yourself while playing. If the fantasy was plausible or serious, it might feel a little too childish to stick to.
Later, when I was doing materials science, I sometimes imagined discovering a material with mysterious properties in the middle of the night as thunders shook the windows. I started modeling complex systems with tools of statistical physics, and the crazy child in my brain partied on. Complex network research is fascinating in itself, but when on occasion I was in the office on a Tuesday night, drinking cold coffee and grunting at an algorithm for not working correctly, I would launch myself into movie mode. My fingers would start dancing lightning fast on the keyboard as a deadly virus spread globally in a manner of hours. Pointing to the results of my simulation, I would shut off O’Hare and a small airport in Dublin, preventing all world population from dying at the last minute. Or, I would be looking at the network of who dated who in high school and from that information I would deduce which stock would rise the next day. Nothing better to put that smile back on your face and help finish your work.
It is easy to get excited by the questions, and lose steam altogether on the rough road to answering them. If you find yourself cursing at a malfunctioning micropipette, try to realize that you are about to save the world, even if in the tiniest bit. But if that micropipette is being stubborn, and it becomes very difficult to remember the big picture, pretending you are Bruce Willis and the pipette holds explosives helps a little as well. Don’t ever forget to play with life.