I’m surprised to find myself reviewing The Joy of Science: Seven Principles for Scientists Seeking Happiness, Harmony, and Success. The subtitle makes it sound like a self-help book, and I’m a crusty old scientist. But I soon realized that the problems the authors discuss are ones I have increasingly been seeing among students and postdocs for the past decade—and even longer if I admit it to myself.
Authors Roel Snieder and Jen Schneider argue that scientists and engineers are under increasing pressure to publish important research, get funding, teach well, and have a good personal life. Snieder and Schneider are both well suited to discuss the challenges inherent in a scientific career. Snieder, the Keck Foundation Endowed Chair of Basic Exploration Science at the Colorado School of Mines, holds degrees in theoretical physics, atmospheric science, and geophysics and has published more than 260 papers. Schneider is an associate professor in the department of public policy and administration at Boise State University and has published widely in environmental and science communication, energy studies, and engineering studies.
In the introduction, Snieder and Schneider ask the reader to answer a range of questions. Are you fully and freely expressing yourself? Do you feel silenced sometimes? Do you think that the many parts of your life are in harmony (I would have preferred the term “balanced” over “in harmony”)? What would those closest to you say? Do you struggle to articulate a vision for your life, to explain where you would like to see yourself in 5 or 10 years? Everyone who thinks about these issues will gain helpful insights.
The book then moves into its seven chapters: Harmony, Courage, Vision, Curiosity, Listening, Compassion, and Integrity. Note that the chapter titles refer to the totality of how one functions. This is not a book aimed at describing the qualities that lead to good research. Nor does The Joy of Science discuss ways to deal with problems by improving the system—for example, by increasing funding to support all the highly qualified people who could contribute important results, by reducing publish-or-perish stress by moving toward the arXiv.org approach and valuing preprints as research contributions, or by making scientific publishing fully open access. Instead, in each chapter Snieder and Schneider give examples of scientists in pressure-induced, dysfunctional situations and suggest behavioral changes that could help alleviate the problem.
A brief look at a couple of chapters should serve to illustrate the book’s approach. Chapter 2 focuses on courage, defined as “the ability and willingness to move forward even when the task at hand is daunting or scary.” The authors urge readers to have the courage to investigate who they are and why they do things the way they do them. Then Snieder and Schneider suggest ways to overcome feelings of being stuck, blocked, or stalled. Chapter 7 focuses on integrity, which the authors define as having all the elements of one’s life working together. We are all integrated beings who think, speak, and act at home and at work. How well have we integrated our personality with the different aspects of our lives? The authors believe strongly in the power of narratives to help make sense of life changes they want to encourage, and they include interviews with people who have had experience with the concepts under discussion.
A recurring theme in The Joy of Science is that scientists often do not recognize that their response to stress frequently causes at least some of their difficulties. One of the book’s most important points, which wasn’t emphasized enough in my view, is that students, postdocs, and faculty feeling under the gun often think that they are alone and that others who usually put up a good front don’t feel such pressures. The Joy of Science can convince scientists under stress that they are not alone, and thus it can immediately begin to achieve its goal.
Gordon Kane is the Victor Weisskopf Distinguished University Professor of Physics at the University of Michigan, and Director Emeritus of the Michigan Center for Theoretical Physics. A theoretical physicist and cosmologist, he has been awarded the Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize and the J. J. Sakurai Prize for Theoretical Particle Physics by the American Physical Society. His most recent book is String Theory and the Real World (Morgan & Claypool, 2017).