I was at a microbiology conference the other day, it was the wrap-up party after four and a half, fourteen hour days of being immersed in the science this particular group found most fascinating. Sessions started at 9 AM, took a couple of hour break in the afternoon, and then went to 10 PM or later; we ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner together.
At the party, there was a Foosball table, and it was two Americans vs two Germans, with a Brit doing the play by play. There were Chinese, Finns, Dutch, Japanese, Israelis, among other nationalities, all looking on. Eminent professors and fresh-faced graduate students intermingled freely. I played a couple of games of pool with a fellow from Vietnam who was studying the degradation of PCBs, and other toxic chemicals, a remaining legacy of a war we fought nearly 40 years ago.
We were there to share our knowledge with each other. We were there to learn from one another. We were there to see how our ideas and technologies stacked up with others. We were there to compete. We were there to collaborate. We were there because we respected one another. New friendships were made. Perhaps a rivalry was started.
The subject of money came up fairly often and always in the context of how hard it was to get the work we loved to do funded, especially in economic hard times, unless, it seemed, you were Chinese or German. I never heard a conversation about how someone’s mutual funds, or other private investments were doing, or not doing. There was some discussion of sports, mostly in the good-natured joshing between the relative merits of European and American football. As usual political discussions were notably absent, except, now with the golf course impresario from Manhattan a presidential contender, even normally shy foreign individuals would ask, ‘Can the thrice married casino magnet from Manhattan really become your President?’.
I always come away from these meetings thinking that as scientists we are a strange and lucky lot. We live in a world much larger than ourselves, and it is our job to recognize it. For that we are fortunate. It is this recognition of the unknown that keeps us, if not humble, then at least respectful of our place in the world. While we are no more beyond the petty squabbles, hurt feelings, and minor, and sometimes not so minor, jealousies of any other group of professionals, we all share the common knowledge that most of the time we are wrong, and that much of what we are attempting to do will not work. But occasionally we discover a nugget of truth, and get to brag about it to our friends. It gives us a bond that goes beyond ethnicity, nationality, shoe style, or political view, and sometimes keeps us partying together until after 2 am.