Curiosity and distress

I had a particularly low period during my post-doc career, nothing seemed to be working.  The days of failed experiments stretched into weeks and then months, with no end is site.

About that time I came across a quote (from the zoologist Marston Bates), that mirrored my mode

Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they are blind.

At first this seemed like a dark description of the scientific method that chimed with the distress I felt after yet another fruitless week in the lab. It conjured up an image of a lost scientist wondering down one street after another, repeatedly hitting dead-ends and having to double back to the point where he started. And as a result achieving nothing for his efforts.

That evening I nursed a beer whilst dwelling on the quote and considering my options. Maybe research science wasn’t for me after all. Perhaps I should try something that felt less like wondering around in the dark. And then it occurred to me that Marston may have left a word out. Perhaps the quote should read

Research is the process of, systematically, going up alleys to see if they are blind.

If I treated every failure as a setback, as I was doing at the time, then I was without hope of reaching my goal. But that one word changed everything, no longer was I haphazardly wondering around trying to find my way out of a maze. Instead I became a cartographer plotting the possibilities and marking off the blind alleys.

That moment represented a sea change in my thinking, it is a moment that I often look back on as a fork point in my life, without that light bulb moment I may well have remained in the dark and taken a completely different career path.

But despite this moments importance I couldn’t quite label what had happened. Until I came across a piece within Merck’s Curiosity report. It described the four traits of the curious. The first three seemed obvious, and I imagine they are words that would crop up regularly when folks are asked to described characteristics of the curious. They are inquisitive, creative problem solvers and open minded. The fourth trait I hadn’t considered before, but it is the one I now recognize as having germinated in my mind as a result of Bate’s quote; distress tolerance, the ability to cope in difficult and anxious situations.

And it’s the lack of distress tolerance that can put the kibosh on curiosity, the most creative, open-minded and inquiring person will come to naught if they give up when things get tough.

Which leads on to my next challenge… These days I spend a significant amount of my time out of the lab, communicating science. I direct a science festival, I go out and about to schools and public arenas.  Why? Well in no small part I’m trying to inspire people to be creative, inquisitive and open minded. But maybe that isn’t enough, do I need to introduce distress tolerance to my science festival?

But how to do that?

Should I focus on tales of failure as much as the rare successes? After all science is full of things that don’t work, the eureka (or even the ‘oh good’) moments are the rarity. But when we communicate our science we invariably showcase the things that work and gloss over the mass of experiments that didn’t produce the result we hoped for.

And if we only ever present the good stuff, how will folks react when they get into the lab or out into the fields and discover that actually stuff, largely, doesn’t work? Somehow I doubt that a workshop filled with demos that don’t work isn’t going to draw the crowds, but stories might? Tales that celebrate stresses and challenges of science and the stuff that doesn’t work, the ideas that proved fruitless, the broken kit and the pitiful yields, would people come and listen to those?

So here’s my aim. I’m going to try and bring narratives, to my science festival, that highlight the challenges and the way we overcome them, but equally as important the ways we don’t. There are some really great examples of this sort of thing out there already. Story Collider, is full of them (Stories about stressful situations), Maryam Zaringhalam writes about failure at Scientific American, she has even started a  forum for scientist to recount their failures (by her own admission it’s a flop). And then there’s F*#$up nights where folks recount their greatest screw-ups to the assembled audiences.

Watch this space, watch me fail 😉



Full disclouse …  Merck asked me to join their  Curiosity Initiative, which consists of science and technology-based opinion leaders. It was established by Merck to seek connections between scientific research and the underlying question: Why Curiosity? There really is some interesting stuff in their curiosity report, so do take a look. Merck is known as Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany in the United States.

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