A personal reflection of the many sources of inspiration driving scientists
Inspiration is a foggy and yet fascinating preoccupation of scientists. Many wish to be inspired and inspire others: their students, their peers and the public. Yet, this state of mind may collide with their assumed rationality, their objective identities. How can your ideas come from inspiration in a frosty world of observation, impartiality and analysis? The problem may be that scientists assume that emotions and inspiration are closely related. And, strangely, they may feel embarrassed by that connection. Thus, to search for inspiration may seem like a transgression.
Ultimately, scientists develop ways of exploring or creating something new and valuable. Such experiences, involving people or feelings that may not always be easily described, are central to the process of scientific discovery and innovation.
Scientific inspiration–an almost inexpressible substance–may be derived from the simple enjoyment of thinking and understanding. The “pleasure of finding things out” as described by American physicist Richard Feynman. A fixation on confronting reality, not escaping from it. Or possibly the need to gain a deeper understanding of what is happening around us to make life more bearable, a little more consequential.
Perhaps inspiration is also something brought to you by other people. Their stories of pain, joy or achievement. A calming fire ignited by a phrase or an image. The sense that it is possible to go beyond what you are today, how you feel now. The conviction that to feel alive you must transcend a necessity, a period of boredom or a moment of mediocrity. Or is it taking a breath to prevent you from doing the same, again and again, everyday?
Many scientists and inventors may argue that what truly inspires them is what they can bring to other people. A hidden truth, a cure, a new purpose, the soothing of sorrows. At least a little more hope, or an expansion of their perceptions of happiness. Or is it the researchers’ willpower facilitated by smaller pleasures stemming from family, mentors, school friends, nature, history or culture?
In fact, inspiration comes to scientists in all of the manners described above and even more diverse ways. Familiarity with a specific field of enquiry is key for novel ideas and approaches to emerge, for aspirations to be refreshed and for enthusiasms to be reborn. This includes developing a solid appreciation of existing problems and needs in different shades and depths. Scientists are therefore freely moving on a continuous spectrum of knowledge and ignorance.
They commonly strive to achieve a deeper comprehension of challenges and their viable solutions, reflections rooted in meticulous physical or abstract observations. Or sometimes all they need is to dive into a consensus of views and figure out better ways to conform and belong to it. Thus, for the scientist the temptation of blindly following fashions and trends is also hard to resist. A jump into the bandwagon of current advances and expectations. Sometimes scientists land on their feet, sometimes on their asses.
It is likely that many of the most respected and successful scientists are simply stirred by the outcomes of their own labour. What often stimulates them is a sense of being chased by a lasting anxiety or pushed by an urgency. The impulse to tackle a public or private apprehension. Such states of mind stimulate their work, and might even become reliable sources of intellectual pleasure.
Others are merely energised, or even spellbound, by the trajectories of their lives. The conditions and vicissitudes of their personal experiences: the need to fight an injustice, a passion for healing, the wish to measure up, the necessity to rise above imposed circumstances.
It is difficult to imagine that all this would be possible without persistent–even exhausting–levels of introspection. A basic concern for the search for meaning and the need for sharing their implications and consequences with other people. Thus, thoughtfulness is the vehicle of the scientist’s inspiration. Something that, at least for a moment, raises their desire to understand what others miss, ignore or reject.
Francisco is a senior researcher in systems biomedicine at the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH). He blogs at Stactivist.
Featured image credit: A Health Blog
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