82 Science My Only Master?

orchestra_177445016.jpgAs scientists most of us dream of a steady career in an academic environment where we can thrive and find enjoyment. We hope to place our mark on the community and contribute to advance knowledge that is beneficial for all of humankind. But it is neigh impossible to do this alone, and history is full of examples of people whose talents and contributions to society were harshly criticised, ignored or forgotten, only to be exemplified much later. At ELSI this should be avoided at all costs.

I want to draw an example from classical music. For many years I had a great love of classical music until it temporarily waned in favour of other genres. I have recently reacquainted myself with it, and I reached the conclusion that the composer whose works inspire me the most is Anton Bruckner. Although not as well known as some contemporary composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Ludwig van Beethoven, this shy Austrian master from humble origins did manage to become a Professor of Music at the prestigious Vienna Conservatory. Bruckner reached international acclaim as a skilled organist and consistently drew large crowds during his performances. As a composer he is best known for his nine symphonies, of which the Ninth was, sadly, left unfinished, although he came astonishingly close before he passed away. Each of these are grandiose, massive works of epic length and proportion, whose rich orchestrations captivate me time and again.

Yet his symphonies, surely his greatest and most daring compositions, were all but rejected by the audiences of his time. Apart from the premiere of the Seventh, not in Vienna but in Leipzig, all the others received harsh criticisms that often brought Bruckner to the brink of depression. He was fraught with self-doubt, causing him to revise many of his symphonies at later stages in his life. It was this burst of revision that interfered with the composition of the Ninth Symphony, which surely is his best, and prevented its completion, despite devotion of the last seven years of his life to the project. And yet, despite the setbacks, the composer never truly lost hope, never truly stopped believing in himself and his own capabilities, and carried on creating masterpieces that we may still enjoy today. For this, for his strength and conviction, and the will to carry on, the world owes him a debt of gratitude.

This life fraught with self-doubt and uncertainty is not unique to Bruckner or to composers and musicians for that matter. Scientists wrestle with these same issues, although on the face of it things always appear hunky-dory. But dig a little deeper and the problems manifest themselves: proposals that may not be successful resulting in funding being cut or ending altogether, papers that got rejected and require massive amounts of reworking and thus delay a project, results that appear inconsistent and thereby threaten to pull the carpet out from under years of painstaking work, and, most of all, prolonged job insecurity that require relocation and/or emigration every couple of years.

Scientists are generally a stoic lot, putting up and shutting up while at the same time working hard and trying to publish as many excellent papers in as short a time as possible to hopefully have just the smallest advantage over their competitors when job season appears. Some of us do not make it to the finish line and leave along the way. For those that do reach the finish, is their success solely an accomplishment of their own talents and dedication, or did they also happen to have the support of their peers and were at the right place at the right time?

At ELSI we possess several advantages that we should employ at full capacity. The working environment is dynamic and its staff and researchers are very friendly towards each other. Most of us feel we are at the right place and at the right time. All of us are as dedicated to science and unravelling its mysteries as Bruckner was to composing his symphonies. And all of us suffer from the same doubts and uncertainties that Bruckner did. But whereas Bruckner had to deal with his daemons mostly by himself, we should aspire to help our colleagues deal with theirs. By lifting each other up we are able to pursue better science, improve ELSI's international reputation and help each other strengthen our skills and prepare us for the next job season.