CFCs: What is right?

Mar 27, 2019
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Posted on behalf of Mushy:

One of the reasons which drew me to the physical sciences and maths was the inherent, cold, emotionless objectivity. There was right or wrong; black or white. No matter what my lecturers’ views on me, all I ever had to do was write down in an exam what they’d told me in the previous year, and I’d get top marks. Easy as that. Right was right.

Fast forwarding to postgraduate studies, when armed with a clean, fully-assigned NMR and a sensible mass spec, it was a piece of cake to go into a meeting, basking in the warm, hazy glow of certainty that no matter who was in the room, the facts would speak for themselves. I had made what I intended, and woe betide anyone who differs. I was right. The facts were there for anyone to see, criticise, and then ultimately to agree with me. [In truth, none of that happened very much; I was a dreadful synthetic chemist. My NMRs were seldom clean, often shoddily-assigned, and my mass specs mostly laughable. But I digress – that’s all for a later post]. Right—for the most part—was still right.

Fast forwarding further, I found myself in the Big Wide World, and the crutch that had borne the weight of my hubris over the past eight years of university was suddenly whipped from under my shoulder. All of a sudden, right as I needed to be, potentially, it could mean nothing. With a receptive ear further up The Company Hierarchy, my words would be heard, my judgments considered, and my recommendations acted upon. If the ear was less receptive, however, I could find myself in a completely foreign place. I had never before been in the situation where I could prove conclusively that what I was saying was right, that I had a surfeit of evidence, and yet it could mean nothing. No matter what I said, or how I said it; the evidence I produced, or how I produced it, I was completely unable to prove myself right. As a recovering scientist, this was anathema to me. In all honesty, it still is. Gradually, I had to transform from being the analyst I was at university, into the salesman I needed to be in order to get across the ideas which I though were correct. I no longer dealt in cold, emotionless, fact. I was now a purveyor of warm, fuzzy, dangerous perception. Right—all of a sudden—was only what my boss perceived it to be.

Of all the culture shocks to have hit me throughout my slow and ongoing transition from scientist to whatever-it-is-I-do-now, not being able to trust just being right is the greatest, and by orders of magnitude. Being a chemist was—for the most part—great. Working in the City is—for the most part—great. In order to jump between the two, however, it has been necessary to subdue a few of the preconceptions I held dear, and to try to assimilate a whole new bunch of concepts which—useful as they are—are not as black and white.


Stu Cantrill

Chief Editor, Nature Chemistry, Springer Nature

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