The hazards and rewards of a life in research

by Sylvain Comeau

Researchers regularly announce their discoveries at conferences and in journals, but rarely do they discuss the research life itself. University of Cambridge emeritus professor George K. Batchelor presented an exception to that rule as Distinguished Lecturer in the Department of Civil Engineering and Applied Mechanics.

From a perspective shaped by 50 years of involvement in research work in fluid mechanics, Batchelor spoke with candour about both the joys and hardships of a very uncertain and risky endeavour.

"Scientific enquiry is more than an occupation or career. It can be, and usually is, a demanding and compelling search for knowledge, which dominates your life. Curiosity-motivated research is a voyage of discovery; there is no end to the lands awaiting discovery, and the voyager never tires of seeking them out."

Those bitten by the research bug find the best of both worlds, and it can be an intoxicating experience, according to Batchelor.

"You get hooked on research, and can never have too much of it. There cannot be many other occupations which give enormous fun and excitement, and also qualify as work. In its power and its urgency, it's not fanciful to compare research with the human sex drive."

Not surprisingly, such a rewarding career carries a high price tag.

"Every research scientist has experienced the agony of being unable to understand some phenomenon, or process, or mathematical result. This search for enlightenment can be both exhilarating and agonizingŠ the nearer one is to a resolution of the problem, the sharper the anguish, and the more reluctant one is to stop and do something else."

He noted that family and personal lives are often among the first things to be sacrificed.

"Research work cannot follow a timetable, and the scientist on the track of a new development will rearrange his other activities, if possible, to avoid stopping at what he is sure is a crucial stage.

"Well, scientists have spouses, children, friends and colleagues, and it is asking a lot of these people to expect them to order their lives around the obsessed scientist, who lives in another world while the chase is on. Research scientists often make poor husbands." Batchelor added that he was speaking mostly of male scientists, because "I believe women are more balanced."

As proof, Batchelor says people need look no further than the first few pages of many science texts. "If you think I'm exaggerating the demands made by scientist spouses, read the dedications in science books. You will find, more often than not, that the authors have taken the opportunity to confess their selfish behaviour, and to beg forgiveness from their wives."

Batchelor read a "typical dedication" from a current textbook on fluid mechanics: "'This book is dedicated to my devoted wife, whose continued love, patience and forebearance made its completion possible.'"

A more down-to-earth declaration comes from the preface of a book by one of Batchelor's Cambridge colleagues: "'My wife needs no thanks, as she is even more pleased than I am to see this book completed.'"

Besides sapping time and energy away from personal relationships, research can also prove a cruel taskmaster.

"A research scientist may make himself unhappy by his insistence that the only worthwhile goal in life for him is making new discoveries and new developments. If his ability does not measure up to his research expectations, he must make painful adjustments. Research is a cruel career for those who are not original and independent in their thinking, because a lack of success is inevitable--and also evident to colleagues."

Advancing age only compounds the risk of failure.

"Nothing can prevent the ultimate decline of mental faculties (with age). What can an old scientist do that compares with what he formerly did? One of my acquaintances in England, a distinguished aerodynamicist, committed suicide around 1960 because, it is believed, he could not face the decline in his intellectual abilities that comes with increasing age."

Batchelor knows of three other scientists who committed or attempted suicide for the same reason. "It seems incredible that these men could not think of any other activity that would give them sufficient reason to stay aliveŠ We are unwise to teach our students and post-docs that research is the only thing worth doing, for when they become old, they find that research is the one thing they cannot do."

Young or old, certain qualities are common to all successful researchers, including dedication, "even a measure of fanaticism," and originality.

"Originality is an ability to think independently and imaginatively. It is an elusive quality which cannot be taught or learned, at least not directly. The greatest scientists have an uncanny ability to identify and understand the essential charactistics of a phenomenon or problem, which everyone will see later to be significant, with wide applications."

He also cited the importance of like-minded colleagues, institutions like universities, the peer review system for scientific journals, and hot baths. He added, "I tend to do good thinking at night, although not all those ideas look good in the cold light of day."

Batchelor's lecture was presented by the Department of Civil Engineering and Applied Mathematics as a tribute to the late McGill engineering professor Raymond G. Cox, who died in August of cancer. Cox was a leader in the field of fluid mechanics.