I just got done schmoozing with the people who funded my summer research. It was two minutes of trying to dumb down complex ecological and population genetics concepts to the level a couple of 70-something former liberal arts majors could understand, and an hour of waiting for them to look at the other student researchers’ posters. In other words, purgatory. On the other hand, I got a chance to look around at how the other students were presenting their research. I like to put things into categories (sort of the hallmark of a biologist) and I started developing an idea of what makes science so diverse. I think there’s three basic types of scientists.
First, there’s the Tinkerer. The Tinkerer is interested in finding out what makes things tick, but mostly in figuring out how to put things together. The three chemistry student researchers fit into this. They’re playing around with some funky cyclic molecules, trying to synthesize them more efficiently and in a more environmentally friendly way. Dr. Frankenstein was a Tinkerer, as are the chemists that design drugs and agronomists that breed or genetically engineer crops.
Then you’ve got the Puzzle Solver. Puzzle Solvers look at the universe as a giant sudoku puzzle: they start off with a curious observation, and try to find the variables that make the data work. These are the people for whom “the scientific method” was made. Science is a series of hypotheses and tests, but the puzzle solvers treat it as an end in itself; the journey is the thrill, the endpoint an afterthought. It seems like Puzzle Solvers occur in all disciplines. Watson and Crick were certainly puzzle solvers, as were, I think, Marie Curie and Elizabeth Blackburn and her collaborators.
Finally, there’s the Story Teller. Storytellers are interesting because neither the result nor the test is particularly interesting on its own. A fact or even a truth can only illuminate a historical pattern which is itself of interest. We might call these people natural historians. Darwin is an excellent example: his theory of natural selection was the common thread in all the smaller stories of how the multitudes of organisms came to be in their current forms, habits, and locations. Jack Horner is another of my favorite scientific Story Tellers. Each fossil is a bit of a story about how dinosaurs lived.
Of course , most scientists have aspects of some combination of the three. I am predominantly a Puzzle Solver, but I’ve got aspects of a Tinkerer and Story Teller as well.