What is the motivation for a scientist to pursue scientific research? Career? Fame? Doing something useful for the society? Or can there be something beyond?
Every morning, I have an interesting task at home. I prepare filtered-coffee and boil milk as soon as I wake up in the morning. Both these processes are supposed to be mundane task, but over the years I have found it to be one of the most intriguing things one can do in kitchen. To make the task engaging, I have been measuring the rate at which half a liter of milk boils and when does it reach the point where it is about to spill over from the container (of course, I do not spill it over, else I will be devoid of my morning coffee…no way). Over many years of this task, I have found that the parameters of milk boiling vary as a function of temperature, humidity, shape of the container, the pressure of the gas supplied in the stove, the content and age of the milk. I have also found some interesting methods to stop the milk spill over even while it is still under boil. In an essence, I start my day with a curious-experiment in the kitchen, and I look forward to it every day.
Curiosity as life – Tasks like boiling milk, preparing coffee, playing with tooth-paste, running in rain, watching clouds, creating soap bubbles, watching water flow, slicing vegetables (see image), dusting the house, cleaning a window pane, washing shoes and drying an umbrella are common to all of us. If you look at these tasks closely, one can connect them to a lot of interesting science. I have found great joy in doing so, and have turned out be an integral part of my life. An important off-shoot of this way of looking at things is that I hardly get bored. Every trivial thing that I observe has something intriguing, and this has had a profound influence on how I approach my life. Invariably, while exploring my curiosities, I find myself losing the feel for time, and one goes into the state of flow. That is a happy place to park your mind.
Scientists’ dilemma – ‘Impact on society’ is touted as the modern mantra for doing research. A scientist is strongly encouraged, especially by funding agencies, to work on research problems that have relevance to a large community. Even among scientific communities, novel solutions to research problems are often encouraged and are highly valued and rewarded. So, a scientist is always looking for problems that can have greater impact, either conceptually or technically. Influenced by this external push, the priority of what one has to do is always under question. Critically, this puts a scientist in a dilemma: should I work on problems that are curiosity-driven or should I work on problems that have largest impact to the society? This conundrum is especially sharp if one is a scientist whose research requires large infrastructure and financial assistance. Related to this dilemma is the debate of basic vs applied research, and has inspired concepts such as Pasteur’s quadrant. I do research for my living and most of time is spent on it. I and my research group think on the “why and how” of our research, and it is important for us to resolve this dilemma.
Resolving the dilemma, personally – Given that we do laboratory-based experimental research, I have to ensure that we secure research funds to keep it up and running. Concomitantly, I have to cater to my curiosity, without which I will not be able to sustain my interest in the work I do. Over the years, balancing these concerns has influenced the work I do. An important aspect of resolving the above-mentioned dilemma has been to spend long hours on identifying and choosing a research problem that caters to my curiosity and has relevance to the research community. The process of choosing a research problem is not a simple one, but in my opinion, is perhaps the most important step in doing research. After all, the question one defines will eventually guide the answer we can find; hence every minute we spend on it is priceless.
Light and light scattering has been central to all the stuff I do in my research. I am also intrigued by science in everyday life. So, the best possible thing to do was to study light-matter interaction. This inspired me to look for problems that can cater to my interest and a large research community, and may potentially have applications that can impact the society -all of this without having to sacrifice my curiosity. Over the years, this intention has guided me to pursue research at the interface of optical physics and biochemistry; nano-plasmonics, advanced optical instrumentation, and in recent times on plasmon-soft matter interactions. All these areas that I have been working-on are strongly rooted in my curiosities. I have deliberately picked these fields such that I never have to sacrifice on what I like to do.
Parting thoughts – Generally, among research students, there is a concern about their future, and how they can retain their curiosity and pursue their career. Invariably, they are sandwiched between what they like and what the external-world tells them to like. If these two things do not overlap, there is always frustration. For such situations, I have a suggestion: follow your curiosity and be cognizant of the fact that curiosity-driven life not only feeds your brain, but also your stomach. Just by following curiosity, a lot of people including myself, have been able to build a career out of it. What is further encouraging is that there is enough room in the society for our curiosities to develop and flourish, provided we take the effort to connect our curiosity to a relevant research problem out there. This exploration will take time, and we must remain patient until it yields. The onus of connecting our curiosity to external relevance is ours, and we must take the initiative. As the saying goes:
IF IT IS TO BE, IT IS UP TO ME!
G.V. Pavan Kumar is a physicist at IISER Pune. This post first appeared on his blog here.