Learning to sharpen your scythe

My grandfather used a scythe to cut hay. Yes. A scythe: big blade, long curved handle, Grim Reaper scythe. I remember watching the mathematical, poetical way he’d arc the blade, pivoting from the waist, mowing down a strip, stepping forward on the backswing, mowing down another strip. He’d pick up the scythe stone every now and then and swish it along the blade to sharpen the edge. I watched him carefully. I knew these were critical skills I would need later in life. That, and things like milking a cow (by hand), throwing a cast net to catch capelin when they rolled in on the beach, cleaning a trout, and escaping from quicksand (OK, I got that last one from watching movies). Of course, my grandfather was no Luddite; he only used the scythe for small patches of cutting. When he had to cut one of the big hay fields, he’d harness up the mowing machine to the horse and clatter around the field that way, like any sane person would.

Well, as it turned out, I haven’t used most of those skills. I picked up other critical skills along the way, as I bounced through life. Some I’ve retained; others are long gone. As my job descriptions changed, the skills I needed had to change.

I was teaching a field course in the spring. One night I was sitting out at the campsite with a few of the students and the talk drifted into science as a career, as it sometimes does. One of them asked me what I thought what makes a good scientist.  I had to think about that a bit. I decided not to open with either “learn to use a scythe efficiently” or “learn to code”.

The problem with tool-based advice is that the tools change. The technology I used for almost every component of my M.Sc. thesis (1985–1987 A.D.) — from the computers, to the software, to the way we assembled plates of illustrations, to the publication process — now seems a bit laughable. It’s the stuff of “uphill both ways, in the snow, and we went home for lunch!” stories. Its been entertaining, enlightening, awe-inspiring, and sometimes a little bit career-altering to sit on the big beach of science and watch the waves come and go. We used to do computer things with command line instructions. And then we didn’t have to and we were happy. And now we code again and we are happy. Excel was amazing. And then it wasn’t. Windows was a game-changer. And then it wasn’t. And the same can be said for many of the other tools we use to build science.

So faced with that realization, I decided to fall back on the bigger picture in my conversation with the students. Not just the things that make doing science easier, or more efficient, or more powerful at a particular point in time. But the things that make science, well, good, at any time. I came up with some of these things on the spot, out there in the desert night; some came to me later, but I think they’re all part of a pretty useful package: Be kind, fair, and inclusive. Respect people, but don’t idolize people. Listen — stop talking and just listen. Collaborate at least as much as you compete. Never try to make yourself look good by making someone else look bad. Learn some things from fields outside your own; you’d be surprised how handy that can be. Be willing to admit that you don’t know, and then try to find out. Be willing to admit that you were wrong, and then fix it. Share what you know, not just with other scientists, but with non-scientists too. And don’t pass up the opportunity to learn new tools, new skills, new approaches as the game of science changes.

Because really, in the grand scheme of things, the tools and techniques of science don’t matter as much as building a community where good people come up with good ideas and good questions.

The important question isn’t “What kind of scythe are you using?”; the important question is “Who needs some hay?”

About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
This entry was posted in Science Culture and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Learning to sharpen your scythe

  1. pvanzand says:

    I really enjoyed this post. I’m also curious how the students responded to this approach, though when I have these kinds of conversations with my undergraduates I don’t often get a sense for whether it impacts them until much later.

    • Thanks. The course itself was very broad, as were the backgrounds/interests of most of the students, so the context was right for taking a broad view of the “tool box”. Beyond that, though, I agree that it’s sometimes hard to see an impact in the short term. I guess we have to keep planting the seed and hope they take hold. And, of course, lead by example.

  2. Pingback: Morsels For The Mind – 14/08/2015 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

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