“Even though you want to try to, never grow up”
Peter Pan is the boy who never grows up. He lives on the island of Neverland with his “lost boys”. Every day he has adventures, surrounded by Indians, pirates, mermaids and fairies. He is dreamy, playful, curious. Sometimes he doesn’t like to follow rules. He is a child – one who remains a child.
Just a story, I would have said recently. We all grow up. Have to grow up. Leave Neverland, get a job – and then it stops, with the dreams and the fantasies, with the playfulness and the curiosity, with the rule-breaking. Maybe after work. But not too much. Not too intensely. Maybe tomorrow.
What no one told me: The story goes on. Peter Pan studies, and he studies ocean science. He gets his diploma or master’s degree, then his doctorate, and even after that he stays in science. He goes around the world in ships and explores different areas of the sea. And even when Peter Pan has been a professor for a long time, with many scientific publications, he is still – deep inside himself and yet also so obvious – the boy who never grows up. The same goes for his sister Mary Pan.
I talk to people from the ocean sciences, more specifically from the CUSCO, EVAR and REEBUS projects, to get to the bottom of this idea. Is a prominent feature of research that scientists retain childlike traits or behaviors? Is science, especially ocean science, not an ivory tower at all, as so often assumed, but a diverse never-never land, with adventurous research expeditions (many actually by ship)? Is the eternal battle not against pirates, but against deadlines, data analysis and writer’s block?
In short: Do scientists never grow up?
It is true that I notice details in my everyday work life with my colleagues that do not occur at other workplaces, or at least not as much. How much joking around goes on during breaks. How many of them still live together in shared apartments. How much the after-work collegialities are also the friendships. The more pronounced willingness to disregard small rules. To constantly question everything.
Overall, in so many moments, the people around me seem much younger in their behavior than I would expect for their age. And yet, they are not childish. It’s something different. Rather, it’s as if something studentish remains in them. And with it the curiosity, playfulness and thirst for knowledge that come with being a student.
When I talk to the ocean scientists, two things in particular emerge:
1: Everyone knows immediately what I am talking about.
2: Research is selective. And it selects strongly. It selects the people who continue in the tough science system. It’s a highly competitive field – the ultimate goal is to publish lots of scientific papers. Contracts are almost exclusively temporary. Moving several times, in case of doubt even with the family, is almost impossible to avoid. Long periods of absence for research expeditions alternate with long periods in front of the computer. Those who want to go home early on Fridays often work on weekends. This is a system in which you can only stay if your thirst for knowledge outweighs everything else. When curiosity, the inner desire to explore, results in a persistence that keeps you going – no matter what. When the discovery of something new, ultimately the experience of adventure, means so much to you that other needs take a back seat.
And this is where the supposedly childlike, that which seems so Peter-Pan-like, comes into play. That which appears to me from the outside to be young at heart. In reality, these are character traits that are absolutely necessary for people to want to and be able to do science at all on a permanent basis. They are paired with stamina and seriousness. Therefore, it is also the character traits that appear so strikingly often in my environment. Other people don’t even enter the never-never land of science or have already left it at an early stage because they don’t want to continue in the system forever. Or because for them the interest does not outweigh the consuming aspects of science.
Childhood and adulthood are terms that do not fit scientists. Driven by curiosity and a thirst for knowledge, but also adapting to challenging life circumstances – THESE are the characteristics that lead to someone becoming a scientist. Adventures sound great, but they do not provide security. This is another reason why Peter Pan must remain a child forever. Only then can the constant uncertainty and surprise in Neverland around him be endured. Beautifully colored, as if it were all just a childish game.
And that is also the reason why a Peter or a Mary Pan has to be in every researcher. In a never-never land like the ocean sciences, you can’t permanently stay otherwise. That’s what the system requires. And even among the scientists who are going further down the path, who are working in universities and institutes right now, there are efforts to change exactly this difficult, unstable situation. With all the Peter- and Mary-pan character traits that may be inherent in them, with all the curiosity and interest that make science so excellent – at the end of the day, every scientist has to a certain extent also a grown-up Wendy inside, and with that a quiet desire for a little more stability.
Author: Ann Kristin Montano
Former scientist who worked long enough in other fields to build up stereotypes about scientists. Now enjoys working among scientists to break down the stereotypes. Was a bit afraid that her colleagues would be offended, when she asked them about their views on the topic. Turns out, they all had to laugh.