A few weeks ago I had a meeting with some people who will probably be contributing to my project. Their organisation will be supplying some insects, and the scientists I met with will probably be a great information resource. We all went through my research proposal together, and the thing that struck me most was how literal-minded they were. One of them in particular (an entomologist) just could not grasp why my proposal was full of “and then I’ll work out what I’m doing next”, rather than “and then I’ll do x, y, z.” At this stage, I can’t imagine restricting myself to a certain type of statistical analysis or a particular transmission model. I also haven’t learnt the science yet that I’ll need to know to refine my bioassays, so I guess my entire methods section is a bit vague. I’m okay with that, but I really struggled to explain to this entomologist why that is. Communication with people who don’t have the same bent to their thoughts that I do is something I’ve always struggled with – I think I just want things to make sense without further explanation.
When I got back to uni I commented on the literal-mindedness of said entomologist to two different people (both biologists). One said “all entomologists are like that”. Another said “that’s normal, all mathematicians are just really hand-wavy. I’ve had to adjust to dealing with you all.” So apparently I’m a hand-wavy mathematician*! So I’ve been wondering today if perhaps different types of science attract different personalities. I think that the idea is probably a load of crap. Most of the maths/physics people I know are fairly happy with hand-waviness (I do know one very literal-minded physicist, but she tends to stay away from anything with the words “quantum” or “probability” in it), but it’s pretty essentialist to just class us as a bunch. If we’re hand-wavy it’s probably because after first year in applied maths there is usually more than one way to do anything, and the “best” method is subjective. The science with which someone is involved is probably as inaccurate a method of judging their personality as cryptanalysis.
*I don’t call myself a mathematician. Other non-maths scientists tend to.