On Being a Curious “Scientist”

I remember, or maybe I want to remember the classroom to be warm and humid, and its air reeked of wet wood and sugary sweet smell. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell, but it was a strange smell that had left a special mark in my soul, and that nostalgia would overwhelm my chest whenever I come across this particular smell again. It was in that classroom I was asked for the first time, “what do you want to be when you’ve grown up?” Naturally, my eight-year-old mind brainstormed about something fun-to-do. As I was thinking, my classmates had already started yelling gaily, “Fireman!” “Policeman!” “Teacher!” “Doctor!” They mentioned almost all the professions we’d learned in nursery rhymes. When it was finally my turn, I said, “scientist!”

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What I had in mind when I said scientist back then was a person working in a laboratory with chemicals, exploring, discovering, and creating something new. I thought about space exploration, and cartoons like Jimmy Neutron and Dexter’s Laboratory.

Fast-forward, I did pursue this scientific ambition. I studied biological science and I worked part-time as a research assistant at a microbiology laboratory. I remember one of the PhD students, who was mentoring me at that time, said, “So, why are you doing this? Is it for the money? It’s okay…I did it too last time. It’s normal.” But I told her, almost defensively, that I took the job because I was curious, and in the future I wanted to conduct a research in microbiology and I needed the lab experience (and I needed the money too, but I was to proud to admit it).

After a few months working in that microbiology lab that smelled like yeast, one late afternoon, as I was leaving the lab, I saw my professor—the head of the lab—reading a journal article in his office, and in that moment, a melancholy suddenly tainted the atmosphere, punched me in my stomach, and twisted my spirit as I imagined myself sitting in his chair, reading journal articles, and then conducting experiments after experiments that other people told me to be important, but they were not personally important to me. I felt as though I could see for the first time the cage that I was in—helping my professor and the PhD students to answer questions that mattered to them, while, my unanswered questions were put on hold, and at the same time, more questions were accumulated, demanding to be listened and to be explored. Now, this was the beginning of my journey to be selfish in learning things that I’m curious about, and to stubbornly follow my curiosity about “all things.”

A few days ago, I stumbled upon a quote by a Nobel Prize winner in Physics, Isidor I. Rabi:

We don’t teach our students enough of the intellectual content of experiments—their novelty and their capacity for opening new fields…My own view is that you take these things personally. You do an experiment because your own philosophy makes you want to know the result. It’s too hard, and life is too short, to spend your time doing something because someone else has said it’s important. You must feel the thing yourself…

This resonates with me deeply, like a confirmation about me being selfish and stubborn to learn and grow by following the paths of my own curiosity, my questions, to pursue things that matter to me first before somebody else. I knew back then that what I felt when I was working in that microbiology lab was not what I’d felt when I yelled “scientist” to my primary school teacher. I thought I was doing scientist things, but deep down I felt like a machine, following orders from my masters.

I started reading a book by Gary Zukav a few days ago, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, and he writes that “a scientist is a person who seeks to know the true nature of physical reality. He deals with the unknown.” That was it! I thought after reading this line–the feeling of “fun” that I had felt when I was eight when I yelled “scientist!” It was the fun in exploring the unknown, and in understanding the physical and the non-physical realms of this world. It was not really the “Science” that the majority have objectively defined, it was different, because dealing with the unknown is dealing with theoretical probabilities, which means infinite uncertainty. And I think uncertainty is a beautiful thing that the “materialistic science” is scared of. So, science seemed to be unfitting to me, or rather an incomplete ways of learning. Meanwhile, liberal arts offer me various ways of exploring the world, and I’m free to choose whatever directions I need to pursue to explore the unknown.

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When a friend of mine, who is pursuing science at this moment, asked me in a manner as if I have “downgraded” myself, why did I change my “field of learning” to liberal arts, I told her, when studying microbes, and biology in general, I only felt like a person with skills, applying known techniques, principle, and knowledge to find answers for other people. It was more like playing and manipulating the “known” to make them better. Learning is a luxurious thing and it is (should be) personal, and in order for me to continue growing and learning, I have to move out of the “box of science” and enter the unknowable realms of learning—the non-physical aspects of reality. And I do it by including liberal arts and the humanities in my journey.

Now, this does not mean that liberal arts are “better” than science, or vice versa. I personally think that these two fields—the physical and the non-physical, the empirical and the non-empirical—are exploring the same unknown, which is the nature of reality. And I believe, one field cannot be complete without the other. A complete reality is composed of the non-physical and the physical, and they’re entangled with our consciousness in production of knowledge. To further define and understand what physical and non-physical aspects of reality would lead to another long discussion. So, I will leave it here for you to explore them on your own.

My point is, I feel like a scientist the most when I’m not doing science. And I feel more like a “scientist” when I study literature in English (not only “English Literature”) through the lens of science, psychology, linguistics, and many more literary theories, learning the true nature of not only the physical realm of reality, but also the unknowable and uncertain non-physical realms of reality. It’s fascinating and I find it very curious, massive, and wonderful. Now, ask yourself, “what am I curious about?” And then follow that feeling to discover your treasures.

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