The Delights of Science

’- Why are you always arguing about things?’

It’s August, and my girlfriend and I are always either in the beach or in the pool. We’re spending the month here before we are definitely establishing in Barcelona, and my mind wanders all the time, mostly about why things are the way they are.

’- That’s the way my brain is wired. I enjoy arguing about things, with someone or on my own.’

There is a lot of excitement lately about how to be productive, about what makes those 10x developers be in a whole different level from the rest. And instead of giving my two cents on how do I stay productive, maybe it’s a good thing if I step back and ask myself ‘What are the things that I’m most productive about?’. And the things that I’m most productive usually have to do with answering questions in my head, and making hypothesis about the world I live in, the people I interact with, and overall how my surroundings are the way they are.

This isn’t an essay about being productive. This is an essay on enjoying the things I do.

I’m lucky. My dad has always been a great story teller. He amuses himself reading the Romans, the Greeks, the stories from the Middle Ages, the kings and queens and the wars and the conquerors. He also finds exciting ways to transmit that knowledge to myself and to my brother. And it usually starts with something we are looking to, or a place we are, and the first sentence is almost always a question such as “do you know why…?” or something like that.

My grandmother is also like that. She’s got the sharpest tool in the shed, despite the fact that she was banned from going to university by her mother “because she was the eldest of 5, and if she went to college, her siblings would have to go too.” So she settled for something else, but she is clever. And she tells stories all the time. About her, about her surroundings, about the life in the countryside, about settling into the big city. She always knows, that’s her thing. She glues herself to the telly when the Spanish version of Jeopardy is on, and she follows along, and she is correct very often. Because she knows.

On the other hand, my grandfather is the one that travels. He used to sell wood stock across mainland Europe, and he was always on the road. Even when I was born, he was still travelling to Germany from time to time. Then he came with stories about going here and there. A couple of weeks ago, we were travelling to France by car, and he was on the phone, pretty much describing what we were about to see, the names of the cities that appeared on the sides of the road, with extreme accuracy. He enjoyed those trips, and the people who heard those stories enjoyed them too.

I don’t entirely rely on genetics to explain what I am. And I don’t thing genetics plays any part in me being any traveller or story teller. I just was grown in an environment that celebrated travelling and stories. I was incentivised to go somewhere, and then tell what happen. And even if I wasn’t going anywhere, I was raised to look around and describe what I see. And describe why it was the way it was. That is science to me.

In Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explores the idea that science can only happen in big institutions. “After all”, he says, “we have been told many times that in [the 20th century] science has become a highly institutionalized activity, with the main action confined to the big leagues”. However, Csikszentmihalyi points out that breakthroughs in science are creative ideas that, although favoured by sophisticated equipment, still come to people sitting lost in thought, daydreaming.

It is often under such unassuming circumstances, with people dedicated to playing with ideas, that breakthroughs in the way we think occur. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

It’s worth pointing out that, for centuries, great scientists did their work as a hobby, because their own fascination with Nature and the rules that govern our world, rather than because they had jobs to do. Copernicus’ work certainly didn’t help his career as a canon at the cathedral in Frauenburg, Galileo was trained in medicine, and Isaac Newton was, if anything, obsessed with religion, and formulated his major discoveries after the university was closed for two years because of the plague, in the boredom of a country retreat. It’s well known that Einstein wrote his most influential papers in 1905 while working as a clerk in a patent office in Switzerland.

Is is true that a person without a PhD no longer has any chance of contributing to the advancement of science? Paul Graham said that if you are trying to choose between two theories and one gives you an excuse for being lazy, the other one is probably true. Science is science, but thanks to basic human snobbery, we tend to think it will emerge from some places but not others.