If a tree falls in a forest and lots and lots of other trees fall simultaneously, does it make a sound?
I cannot recommend Alain de Botton‘s The School of Life enough. I know of no other thinkers who approach and understand the wide range of pains of the modern world as profoundly, yet keeping a sober optimism about the future.
This is a fine example of their work, a short video essay on the dark side of meritocracy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTDGdKaMDhQ
YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC7IcJI8PUf5Z3zKxnZvTBog
Text essays: http://www.thebookoflife.org
My conscious mind never witnessed the emergence of the idea that I wanted to be a scientist. In fact, even upon request, there is no particular event that collapses to assume the moment when I took the decision. Yet, obviously I am attracted to this human endeavor, for the two first sentences alone reveal that I’ve been reading about free will and quantum mechanics, two of the most fascinating topics in science. Or should I say philosophy?
Furthermore, no one who bears a degree in mathematics can securely say he wants to have a career in science before being offered a job at Goldman Sachs. But wait, mathematics is not really a science, is it? I’m looking at you, Gauss and Popper.
When I was a kid living in a farm, every once in a while a saw a grader flattening the road in front of our house. A grader is, you know, a giant tractor with six wheels and a cabin with lots of buttons, switches, and handles. That was one of most sophisticated things my eyes had direct contact to. Driving it should be a lot of fun, I thought, so I remember turning to my dad one day and saying that I wanted to be a grader pilot. He didn’t respond well to the idea and I didn’t become one, but if I were asked to answer when I decided to be a grader pilot at least I’d have half of a story. (Here between us, if you have a friend who drives a grader, would you please let me know? I still want to try it.)
In a sense, though, doing science is like operating a grader. I’m kidding! If I had imagination enough to build such a stretched metaphor, I would be a writer. By the way, I don’t remember deciding to be a writer either, and here I am having to write scientific reports if I want to keep my job. Well, to be honest, I told in my PhD application that I wanted to write scientific divulgation books one day. That’s still true, but it doesn’t mean it will happen.
My point is that things never happen exactly as you want. The best you can do is to tell a story in a way that makes it look like everything happens the way it should. I adapted the last two phrases from the lyrics of a song that I wrote a while ago. You see, I also want to be a rock star. But who doesn’t? In my teenager daydreams, I played guitar in Avril Lavigne’s band. A detail of minor importance was that she was also my wife. Unsurprisingly, none of these things ended up happening (but Avril, just in case, you know how to contact me).
Now, I won’t judge myself too hard for not having a story. After all, the question of when one knows anything is not a trivial one. If it is possible to observe the moment when knowledge accumulates in the brain and, in affirmative case, how such observation can be done, are still open problems. Will them one day be answered? It’s difficult to say. But if so, you bet it will be due to the work of scientists. There is no sustainable progress in knowledge without some form of scientific investigation. Hey, look, I’ve found an answer to a slightly different question! Will that do?