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Why I research

I came across George Orwell’s 1946 essay Why I write. Some of his reasons for writing resonate with some of my reasons for doing research.

I wasn’t expecting that. Research involves writing, of course, and reading too — enormous amounts of both — but it’s not the same kind of writing as a writer writes. While it’s good to have a clear style in science, it’s the clarity of the science and not the turn of phrase that’s the most prized element of scientific writing.

Orwell, writing in 1946 (which is post Animal farm, incidentally), sets out the forces that led him to become a writer. Specifically, he identifies “four great motives for writing” that will drive each writer in different proportion depending on who he is, when and what he’s writing about. Reading these, it struck me how close they are to the reasons I (and I suspect others) have for doing research:

Sheer egoism. That’s one any academic has to agree with. A desire to be thought clever, talked about, and be remembered. For some, in some fields, there’s a seduction towards popular commentary. For others it’s a more academic draw, to be the centrepoint of conferences or to be head-hunted into bigger and better (and better-paid) jobs. As long as the pleasure of recognition doesn’t get in the way of the science I don’t think it does any harm, although we always need to keep in mind that it’s really all about the research and not about the researcher — a little memento mori for the honest scientist.

Aesthetic enthusiasm. It might surprise some people to hear about aesthetics applied to science, but it’s certainly an aspect of the experience: the pleasure in thoughts well-set-down, of an elegant and complete explanation of something. Especially in mathematics there’s a clear and well-recognised link between simplicity and the perception of beauty, a feeling that the right approach is the one that captures all the essence of a problem as simply as possible. It’s surprising how often such simplicity works, and how often it leads directly to unexpected complexity and interactions.

Historical impulse. Orwell uses this in the sense of “a desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.” In sciences I think one can also see in this a desire to bring together strands of past work (your own and others’), and again to make a clean and elegant synthesis of whatever field one works in. I think it also encompasses the need we have to share science, to have papers in durable venues like journals as well as in live conference events.

Political purpose. The desire to push the world in a particular direction. Scientists are often accused of being remote from the real world, although a lot of what we do is increasingly influencing public policy. This element of writing also led Orwell to the most famous line of the whole essay: “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” Few senior scientists would disagree nowadays.

It’s surprising to me that a writer and a scientist could agree on their driving purposes to this extent. I suspect it’s simply because of the need for creativity that underlies both spheres, and the fact that both are essentially self-motivated and self-driven. You become a writer because it’s who you are, not because of what you’ll get out of it, although you also obviously hope that the rewards will flow somehow; similarly for science.

What I don’t have, of course — and I’m grateful for it — is the equivalent of the trauma Orwell suffered in the Spanish Civil War, which shaped his subsequent writing and give him a lifelong cause against totalitarianism. It certainly makes me want to read Homage to Catalonia again, though, and I’ll read it with a new view on how it came about.


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