A scientist's love for a particular science can be as committed and irrational as a fan's love for a particular team
I think it was the France vs Croatia game in Euro 2004 that brought home to me the peculiar parallels between the scientist and the football fan. Nil - nil in the first half, and les bleus were stroking the ball around with all the elegant precision and control of a white-coated Laboratoire Garnier chemist.
I appreciated their wonderful skill but I couldn’t get fired up about the match. For me to feel real passion, England had to be up there on the screen or, better still, my own club team (Oxford United, since you ask). And then came the thought: a scientist’s love for a particular science can be as committed and irrational as a fan’s love for a particular team.
We all realise that our irrational obsessions with football teams can’t possibly be communicated to people who don’t share them, however much they appreciate the beautiful game. As with football fans, so with scientists. We’re all interested in science, but we also have a special fascination, a love for one area in particular. I appreciate superstring theory (dimly), and I have great respect for those DNA-decoding biologists. But I have an irrational, extra-special love for chemistry.
Other scientists might be interested in chemistry, but they are not generally passionate about it. Yet for some reason, speaking for myself alone, I am fascinated by the logic of the periodic table, the beauty of molecular structures, the clean lines of a mechanism. Not that I shout this in the streets, you understand - not in the same way that I proclaim my support for Oxford United. It’s an inner dedication, which at the moment is helping me plough through vast textbooks to complete my course.
You see the parallel with football: the appeal of one particular club or topic is intrinsic. (Obviously one’s choice of club is rooted in childhood and one’s environment - but then the same could be said for one’s preferred science.) I welcome good science and I enjoy good football, but I only get hugely excited about chemistry or Oxford United.
In an important way, though, scientists are very unlike football fans: they insist on thinking that it is possible to make others share their intrinsic delight in a subject. Many are the articles I have read that bid to thrill me with a description of a newly-discovered binary star system, or a summary of the formation of sedimentary basins.
Well, I’m vaguely interested, but I’m simply not going to become a convert to astrophysics or geology. Likewise, I’m not going to be persuaded to support Stoke City, however much a friend might interest me in their fortunes.
How can I persuade a non-chemist to get genuinely enthusiastic about chemistry? If I merely point them towards the more obviously ’interesting’ aspects of chemistry - pretty colours, explosions - then, although I might have them temporarily fascinated, they haven’t properly understood my love for the subject. I haven’t transferred my own appreciation of chemistry to them. I have cheated, as if I were trying to pass on a dedication to all things Liverpool by showing a video of their recent Champions League success.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be too depressed that not everyone can be converted to the inner beauty of chemistry. Good science, like good football, is appreciated by everyone and maybe we should leave it at that.
But we should always remember that our fascination with one science doesn’t always translate to other scientists, let alone to the general public. Some of you may even have failed to be fascinated by this article - for which Nick Hornby in his novel Fever Pitch provides a suitable disclaimer:
’I tend to overestimate the metaphorical value of football, and therefore introduce it into conversations where it simply does not belong. I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to anyone who has had to listen to my pathetically strained analogies.’
Richard Van Noorden