Scientists and inspiration

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Are scientists inspired? Where and how do they get their most pressing concerns? What fuels their innermost motivations? Is it a requirement for them to be inspired?

Inspiration is a foggy and yet fascinating preoccupation among scientists.  Many scientists wish to be inspired, and inspire others: their students, 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 presuppose that emotions and inspiration are in close proximity, and strangely, feel embarrassed by that. Thus, to search for inspiration may seem like a transgression. And in any case, scientists do not envy artists and poets.

But ultimately, there are specific experiences that drive scientists, sometimes like an obsession, to explore or create 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, such an almost inexpressible substance, may be derived from the simple enjoyment of thinking and understanding. The Feynmanian “pleasure of finding things out”.  A fixation on confronting reality, not escaping from it. Or possibly the need for taking a glance at what is going on to make life more bearable, a little more consequential.

Or perhaps it is 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. Maybe their inspiration is the realization that opportunities for discovery choose the scientist, not the other way around. Or is it the willpower that is facilitated by smaller pleasures originating from family, mentors, school friends, nature, history or culture?

If there is a force that sturdily makes these individuals explore and understand, well beyond simple self-interest and vanities, then these people qualify as a cast of outsiders and freaks.  But it is not that simple. It is that, all of the above and even more.

Novel ideas and approaches emerge, aspirations refreshed and enthusiasms reborn also from a familiarity with a specific field of enquiry, including a solid appreciation of existing problems and needs. But this comes with different shades and depths: scientists freely moving on a continuous spectrum of knowledge and ignorance. This commonly requires a deeper comprehension of challenges and their viable solutions, reflections rooted in meticulous physical or abstract observations. Or sometimes all you 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 stirred simply by the outcomes of their own labor, the “stuff” that they perceive, calculate or generate. Or there is actually more to it: 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 fire scientists up, stimulate their work, and might even become reliable sources of pleasure.

Others are merely energized, 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. This must merit no less than a basic concern with the search for meaning and with sharing their implications and consequences with other people. This incessant rumination and thoughtfulness are the vehicles of the scientist’s inspiration. Something that, at least for a moment, raises their desire to understand what others miss, ignore or reject.

An edited version of this article was published in Euroscientist.

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