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How does one become a researcher

Posted on July 25, 2010 in Food-for-thought

From Experimental Psychology by B. J. Underwood, 1966, p.263.

Let us consider a hypothetical situation. Let us assume that during your junior year in college you find yourself majoring in biology. Furthermore, through some quirk, your interest begins to center on bugs. You decide to carry your studies on into graduate work. Your parents tolerate this, partly because it gives them an uneasy but definite feeling of status to have someone in the family engaged in research and partly because they think it is a momentary whim and that you will soon be back home to enter your father’s business. But you don't come home, and it becomes apparent to them that you are thoroughly happy with your work. Your parents have inquired into the nature of your research, but you manage to sidestep this question for you are quite sure what their reactions will be. Finally, however, they corner you, and you have no recourse but to tell them that you are studying fireflies. Oh, how you wish you could say that the research is classified, or that you are working on a cancer cure. But you tell them that your central interest is fireflies. To say the least, this is somewhat puzzling to your parents, and they pursue the questioning with primary emphasis on why you are doing this research. You explain that you are studying the life cycles of fireflies, their methods of reproduction, territory covered by them, sources of the "fire," and so on. You have filled several notebooks with detailed observations on the firefly in its natural habitat and have done several experiments in which you have varied temperature, humidity, diet, and so on.

Your parents are insistent. "What are you doing this for?" You explain to them that not much is known about this insect and that you are attempting to fill this gap in our knowledge. "But," they persist, "what good is all this knowledge; what are you going to do with it?' You indicate to them that when your work seems fairly complete and when you are able to make the necessary comparisons with other species of the insect family, you may prepare a short book on your findings. At this your father lights up, and he suggests that you have been rather cagey about this whole matter. For, he continues, while he doesn't see right offhand who would buy such a book, he suspects that the sales will make you a nice little bundle of cash. Then you tell him that more than likely it will cost several hundred dollars to have the book published and that it is doubtful the sales will ever pay this back. Your bewildered father feels that life bas dealt him a severe blow.

This hypothetical illustration, as well as those real ones given earlier, represent men doing research in its pure sense; that is, the work was not done because it was seen to have a practical application. They did not have to have an answer to the question "What good is it?" in order to justify the research. That it did in fact turn out to have great usefulness cannot be denied. In like manner, your knowledge of the firefly may ultimately be of great value in a practical sense. Let us not be hasty in judging a piece of research or a topic of research as being unimportant. Undoubtedly, much research in all disciplines slips away into oblivion, providing only momentary pleasure to a few, but much research is saved from oblivion because it sooner or later is perceived to be of aid in understanding nature as a whole or because the principles are found useful in a practical sense.