The other day, I was hanging out with some friends at a local bar. In between sets, we were sitting outside and somehow got onto the topic of why we worked in science. I said something about wanting to help other people, and I casually included my friends in that statement. Like, isn't that why we all got into science? Wasn't that obvious?
They were pretty quick to correct me. No, they said, they didn't become scientists to help other people. It wasn't their primary reason, anyway. They liked the mental rigor of science. They thought the topics they worked on were fundamentally interesting or cool. They enjoyed hanging out with other scientists too.
I'm not going to lie, this answer took me completely by surprise. I really (and I mean really) believed that everyone goes into science because they want to help other people. For example, I want to understand how we can make better batteries so we can actually use renewable energy sources on a global scale. My husband wants to understand how to make better vaccines. I think what we're doing is important because it could help someone, even if what my husband or I do only helps them indirectly. Maybe our research isn't the precise answer (it isn't), but it might help the next scientist come up with a better solution or insight.
Sitting at that picnic table, I felt I had never learned something so big about my friends. To be clear, I'm not condemning them. They each do their own thing to make their world better, they just don't necessarily see science as the best method to make changes. (And frankly, the more I read about the refugee situation in Europe right now, the more I'm inclined to agree that science won't solve all our problems in the time frame that we need them to.)
What struck me about that conversation was that I could be so wrong about the motivations of people I thought I knew pretty well. And then that made me think about the assumptions I make in my own writing.
If you write science fiction, then you are practically required to have some kind of scientist in the story. But what kind of motivation do you give them? Are they working to do good and help other people? Are they a mad scientist archetype, driven by their ego? But maybe some characters do science because it makes them feel good. It tickles an analytical need. Maybe they're just innately curious, or they believe that the pursuit of knowledge, no matter how esoteric, is worthy.
There's a character in my novel who is a citizen-scientist type. He's unfunded, unaffiliated with a university, but he's compelled to study a strange event that's happening. Why? Because he wants to help other people? No, he's a misanthrope, so that can't be his reason. It's something more personal, maybe even compulsive. I'm trying to understand him better and yet he's eluding me. Why are you doing this? I want to ask him, and he just looks smug. We're not alike.I used to think I was pretty good at understanding people, but clearly my own opinions get in the way, and I think it's getting in the way of my writing too.
How do you let that kind of stuff go?