I have often wondered what the deeper, unconscious motivations are for doing natural sciences — the true motivations, not the ones that we like to believe in, like ‘advancing human knowledge’ or ‘curiosity’ (although those are of course also important).
For myself, I think there are two:
- Being able to turn away from difficult emotions. If I am sad, I can start working on a complex problem and leave the sadness behind completely. I don’t think that would be as easily possible for me when doing literary criticism, for example.
- Using logic and reason, I can in principle fight anyone, and theoretically win against anyone. The Master student can defeat the professor. Authority is not absolute anymore.
The second hidden motivation is probably what causes me to become deeply depressed if PhD students say that will tell their professor ‘what he wants to hear’ and that they ‘do not believe their projects makes sense, but will of course never tell him’. I would never have thought that this kind of thinking is as widespread in science as it apparently is.
Of course, I need to remember that other people have different reasons to be in science. I get the impression that some of my colleagues are in science exactly because they feel comfortable around God/father-like patriarchal authority figures, which many professors are (or would like to be). Others again seem to feel comfortable when being treated badly and abused by their professors, and like being able to complain about it, and select such professors even if they have the choice. Probably to reenact some kind of childhood abuse. There are people who really believe in hierarchies in my field. And there is nothing which demotivates me as deeply as interacting with such people.
I wish I would find a few more fellow postdocs who think like me, but this becomes harder and harder. Maybe because those who do not like authority are leaving the field. I start to wonder if one has to be a person with a hierarchical way of interacting with people to advance in my field.