I’ve been a scientist for quite a while now. Over fifty screwed-up years. I guess you could say my life as a scientist started in high school. About that time I began to wonder what the heck I wanted to do with my life beyond graduation. I’d taken several science courses in high school, biology and physics (I didn’t take chemistry until college), and enjoyed them, although I’d have a hard time explaining why I liked them. (That’s one of the drawbacks to being a scientist, explaining things that are so intensely non-scientific in origin.) Perhaps it was the logical way the studies were laid out, that is, by the scientific method, that attracted me. I like things that are straightforward and simple to understand. A + B = C, C + D = E, and so forth, onward and upward. One person makes a discovery, then another person takes that discovery to the next logical step, and another person goes on from there, etc., etc. There’s a very definite progression to it, a plausible, rational progression that reveals something about the world we live in. Einstein, for example, could never have made his most significant discoveries without the work of Newton, and today’s discoveries about the world around us and the space in which we live could never have been made without Einstein.
Once I got into college, I majored in biology. There wasn’t any subdivision of biology at the time because I went to a rather small college (only about 2000 students) and all they had was a Biology Department. I took courses in anatomy, embryology, genetics, and so forth, but what I got most interested in was bacteriology. It had lots of stuff in it, lots of little things to fool around with, petri dishes, bunsen burners, agar plates, test tubes, microscopes, you name it. I was hooked. I liked the process of the course, all the stuff to work with to keep my hands busy. Those little bacteria seemed to adhere to all sorts of logical steps in their life, and I found I could predict what they would do in any given situation–absolutely fabulous for someone who likes logic.
I went on to graduate school and studied viruses. Now, viruses are actually somewhat less predictable than bacteria, and really it’s not as easy to explain what or why they do things, but I think part of what attracted me to them is the fact that they are somewhat less plausible than bacteria, and it’s more of a challenge to understand them. They are a challenge, make no mistake about that. AIDS, measles, rabies, hepatitis, influenza–you name it, these diseases have been frustrating virologists for as long as we’ve known about them. Even before. At least smallpox has been eradicated and polio is on its way out, though what will arise to fill the void left by those plagues is still a great unknown. (That’s one of the drawbacks of eradicating a disease; something else may come along to take its place, something much worse.)
In any event, I’ve gotten away from directly participating in science and I’m now writing, novels mostly, all about science fiction. Not so logical anymore. I have to write about human nature as well as science, and many people don’t follow a logical life history. My characters have to be human first, even if I make them scientists. Scientists, like everyone else, do have moments of irrationality, they can have fears and doubts, phobias and uneasiness, all of which can be ungrounded in legitimate and plausible conditions. They’re people like everyone else. Now my problem is, how do I convey that in a book and keep the science and logic, yet present them as plain, honest real people? I guess I’ll find out.