Confessions of a Postdoc (19): The Things we Choose to Believe

(May 30th, 2014) Since 2010, Anjana Nityanandam has shared her inner thoughts, experiences and feelings that come with being a postdoc. Here are her latest insights into the world of a research scientist that many are probably all too familiar with.

‘Superstitious scientists’ sounds like an oxymoron. We, who only believe what can be rationalised. We, who only believe what can be proven beyond doubt or, at least, which can be explained to a satisfactory degree. How could we possibly believe in something illogical and baseless? But some of us do. My friend laughs at me every time I say or do something superstitious, and every one of those times I feel conflicted, like I am betraying my faith (science) or my brother/sisterhood. I know that I wasn’t always like that. I turned superstitious when I started living independently, when suddenly, I alone was responsible for my life and my day-to-day survival. In the lab, it has gotten to the point where I am afraid of rejoicing out loud when my cells grow well, for fear that I might jinx them. As good experiences make you confident, bad ones make you absurdly cautious.

I guess when you struggle a lot in life and end up having to work really hard for everything, you don’t want anything, no matter how irrational it sounds, to jeopardise your chances of success. Do we really believe bad things will happen if we don’t knock on wood? Of course not! But how many of us want to take that chance? Since it doesn’t hurt to be superstitious (mostly), I better not risk it, right? There has to be a reason for people warning you not to tempt fate. There has to be a reason why someone came up with the concept of ‘jinx’ing things.

If you surveyed a thousand successful athletes, I bet at least 90% of them, if not more, probably on condition of anonymity, would admit to being superstitious. Most successful athletes, politicians, businessmen/women, will tell you that although they understand the irrationality of being superstitious, they would rather be safe than sorry. My favourite example is Rafael Nadal. He is famous, or infamous, depending on how you look at it, for being ridiculously obsessive about his rituals before and during a tennis match. For instance, he has to position and orient all his bottles a certain way. No matter how stressed he is, or how bad the game is going for him, he will never ever deviate from that ritual. Some are put off by his superstitions, some find it amusing, and others find it absurd. I think, as long as no one is hurt, let the guy do whatever he needs to do to get his head in the right place.

On the same lines, some very dear scientist friends of mine have this strong and abiding faith in destiny. They believe what’s meant to happen will happen, and similarly, no matter how much you want it, what’s not meant to happen, won’t. No matter how abstract and intangible that sounds to me, even I can appreciate that believing that everything takes place for a reason, makes disappointments easier to handle. It makes the lows of life a little less hurtful, a little less heartbreaking. Some other scientist friends of mine are blind followers of religious traditions. I have never understood how they manage to reconcile the rational scientist inside them with the archaic practices that most religions are associated with. Don’t get me wrong, I am not opposed to such practices, as long as they are innocuous. However, despite my own logic - defying idiosyncrasies, I cannot wrap my head around how one could possibly resolve the science versus religion conflict that should invariably arise. I don’t wish to sound insensitive, but observing these friends, I realised that religion can provide a welcome distraction from the struggles of everyday life, just as faith in God can provide comfort and hope.

I am of the strong opinion that life is nothing but a series of probability events, a series of random events, with no real pattern or logic to it. Of course, your actions will dictate, to some extent, your future, and the things that happen to you, but that’s only a short-term consequence. If you were to view your life from a high vantage point, you would realise that you never had any real control over what transpired in your life. Things happened a certain way but they could have easily gone a different direction. What decided what path you got pushed into? Nothing. It was just a probability thing. Does that sound too radical? Or maybe cynical? It’s not my intention to be a cynic but I do believe that the sooner one realises it’s futile to have set expectations, the easier and less painful life will get. Ok, I admit. That does sound a tad bit depressing.

Continuing in the same vein though, I am unconvinced of the concept of karma and that people get what they deserve. It doesn’t matter what you deserve or how kind and compassionate you have been to others. Your experiments may randomly decide to stop working one fine day, or you may never get the results you anticipated despite working very hard, or worse still, you might run into problems hardly anyone’s ever seen or heard of. The trick is in making the best of what you have. A friend of mine used to say, your happiness is your choice. You can either choose to be happy with what you have, or be miserable and complain about it all the time. It’s like making friends. You don’t get to choose who you want to be friends with. You take the people life brings your way, and you make friends out of them. Life is the same. You take the things that happen to you, and you turn them into learning experiences, into opportunities, and figure out a way to be happy and content.

Anyway, I digress. Stephen Hawking said, and I am paraphrasing, even people who believe everything is predetermined and that nothing can be changed, look before they cross the road. I say even scientists, who only believe what can be rationalised and proven, take a leap of faith and knock on wood every time someone jinxes their experiment. And that it’s perfectly fine to do so. 

Anjana Nityanandam

Last Changes: 07.08.2014

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