A few of weeks ago I attended a colloquium by Prof Brian Schmidt (Australian National University) here at the University of Heidelberg. Schmidt worked on one of the two major supernova type 1a projects in the 1990s that led to the finding that the Universe is accelerating, propelled by the mysterious driving force we now call Dark Energy. For this work he and fellow supernova hunters Adam Riess and Saul Perlmutter received the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics. Nobel Prize winners always attract a good audience, and as the talk was advertised to the physics and astronomy departments, as well as the various research institutes around Heidelberg, the lecture hall was packed to the rafters.
It was a great talk with an excellent introduction to cosmology and dark energy for the non-cosmologists in the room. Then came the history of the supernova 1a research that led up to their now famous but unexpected discovery. It has all the ingredients for an entertaining and inspirational story: good guys and bad guys, competition at the telescopes, colourful characters, a bit of suspense, and a rather happy ending in Stockholm.
It reminded me of hearing for the first time about the life and work of some of the great scientists of the past – Newton, Galileo, Herschel, Hubble, Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger… The science was cool, but it was the stories of personalities, rivalries, friendships, collaborations and conferences that got me hooked.
And Schmidt’s talk got me thinking: in 20 years’ time, what do I want my story to be? That may sound like I’m having a existential moment, but the further I go in my career the more I realise that creating a narrative to your work is incredibly important in science. Often research feels like chipping away at a dozen little problems – a dataset here, a prototype there – that may or may not be related to the same questions.
To get the big jobs and the funding you have to be able to tie all those avenues together into a coherent plot, with yourself as the inevitable protagonist who saves the world, circa 2025. That takes intelligence and hard work, but also imagination and a bit of ego.
Perhaps the hardest thing about it is that your story is not just your own. As with everything in life, you don’t have perfect control. Funding climates change, people move, projects fail…. And who knows, maybe you’ll end up with a life outside of the office too one day? Even the perfect 10-year plan needs a rewrite every few years. So: intelligence, hard work, imagination, ego, lots of rewrites – and perhaps a live-in housekeeper. Easy right?