Sight-reading my science

Sight Reading, by skelly98; used under a CC license.

Parents often say things like “when you’re older, you’ll be glad we made you do this”.  They’re also often wrong about that, but occasionally they get it right.  In my case, one of the few things that I agree with unreservedly is that I did indeed come to appreciate the time I spent learning to play the piano.  At least, I agree in hindsight;  as a child, in the future tense, I most certainly did not experience wild joy from sitting in front of our old, battered upright piano, stuck down in the basement and banging away for hours.  In younger times, I much preferred reading to the endless repetition of scales and pieces, but this was a preference that did not endear me to my mother.  

So, I developed a compromise system that appeased the attentive ear sitting upstars and awaiting the next masterpiece in A-flat.  Lessons were held at the home of Mrs. Birch, my Jekyll / Hyde piano  teacher who was a perfect candidate for Kindly Grandmother Jekyll of the Year until a student unwittingly sat themselves down at her Yamaha baby grand and unleashed Generalissimo Hyde;  these lessons inevitably involved carting several books to and from her house, which required a dedicated book bag that sat beside the piano.  This was a perfect place to stash whatever book I was reading  while I whipped off a quick left-handed play-through of whatever Bach fugue or Mozart piano concerto I was mostly ignoring, after which I would haul out my book and greedily mow through as many pages as I felt I could get away with before the warden would get restless upstairs.  


If you don’t play an instrument, you might not be familiar with the concept of sight-reading.  Learning to “read” music, to turn the notes on the page into a series of motor commands that lead to music coming from the instrument you are playing, is an important skill for any musician to develop and sight-reading is just the logical endpoint of that skill.  Sight-reading involves playing music placed in front of you for the first time as though you’ve been playing it for years;   at least, that’s what it’s supposed to be like, but it often involves a fair bit more squinting, scrambling, and muttered cursing than you might reasonably expect, especially when some bastard just handed you Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca and you’ve never played it before.  Experienced sight-readers will also probably agree that it requires the ability to see things coming, because if your eyes aren’t a few notes out in front of the notes that you’re playing right at this moment, the next thing that you’re going to be doing is trying to extricate your fingers from whatever hellish gang-sign-slash-car-wreck they’ve managed to tangle themselves into when you stopped paying attention.


Mrs. Birch wasn’t just a stern piano instructor, she was also a tattle-tale.  If she felt that you weren’t up to snuff, she would take the accompanying parental figure aside when they came back to pick you up and tell them that you clearly hadn’t been practicing enough.  Since the result of this was a crackdown that I wished to avoid, I was left with an extremely strong incentive to be good enough at the lessons to avoid such an outcome. Unfortunately, my equally strong disincentive to practice in favor of my much-preferred reading left me in a bit of a pickle, since it was hard to look like I’d practiced when I really hadn’t.  Thus, I became really good at sight-reading.


When it comes to science, my problem isn’t that I don’t like to practice.  In fact, I read and think about science all the time.  But the trouble is, I have a terrible memory.  I know that this admission blows a hole in the scientific mystique, because if you watch television, every scientist on TV (besides being an intellectual giant) has what seems like unbelievably perfect recall.  Arguably, it’s their defining characteristic, since they’re rarely shown performing other skills like critical thinking or deep analysis of a problem – with notable exceptions, of course.  On the other hand, like any good story there’s a fairly large grain of truth to it;  those prodigious memories do (mostly) exist, and I’m sure that you even know someone like that.  Many of the best scientific minds I know do, in fact, have fantastic recall of the things in their field, good enough that it makes me inadequate to be in the same room with them.  Even the ones who can barely remember to tie their own shoes without a Post-it note on their laces can rattle off details of papers they read as an undergrad 25 years ago without pausing for breath.

Of course, some perspective is important here, both in assessing others and in assessing oneself.  When looking at the way other scientists recall information and data, it’s important to remember that they’ve spent their entire adult lives on these topics. Sometimes, this is really obvious.  Academia is a training program in narrowing your focus until you’re the world’s foremost expert in an area of knowledge so tiny that sometimes you’re also the only person in the world who cares;  anyone who has gone through the Ph.D. process and received a degree at the end is going to be able to spout reams of facts about their chosen topic, even if only from sheer self-defence.  And, when you feel insecure, it’s also easy to suffer from a perverse confirmation bias, where you only remember the times that other people sound smart and make you feel stupid by comparison.  In academia, there’s always plenty of smart people to make you feel inadequate, much like I imagine women feel when reading fashion magazines, flipping through page after page of ads that make them feel like they have to measure up to the impossible standards depicted therein. And, finally, it’s easy to exhibit sampling bias that borders on a half-baked solipsism:  since you can peer inside your own thoughts and see all of the failures of your own memory and cognition in real-time but the thought processes of others are opaque, it’s possible to forget (or disbelieve) that others can feel like that too.

With those caveats firmly in place, it is still pretty clear to me that I’m not that scientist.  You know the one: the diamond-tipped bit on the drill of science, driving a hole into our uncertainty and powering through to the truth in their field.  These are the sorts of scientists whose praises are rightfully sung for their life-long dedication to a field;  to pluck a name out of the air at random, I’m thinking of people like Frans de Waal, who has spent decades expanding our knowledge of primate social and evolution.  This dedication to primate behaviour has rewarded him handsomely with world-wide recognition as one of the foremost names in this field, which is as it should be [1]. But I’m just not that guy.  I can’t face the idea of an entire career spent drilling down into one topic;  there’s too much out there, and I want to play in more than just one sandbox.  You can see this in my academic history, where I’ve wandered from computer science (undergrad), detoured briefly into classics, back to psychology (undergrad and M.Sc), to behavioural ecology (Ph.D.), and now I’ve dropped into the depths of evolutionary biology to work on the dynamics of viruses and bacteria.  Unfortunately, this sort of academic field-hopping is viewed with suspicion, at best (“Narrow and deep is good.  Shallow and broad is usually not appropriate”).  And, it doesn’t really maximize my production of papers, which means that if I want to maintain an academic career I will probably need to settle down soon.  In truth, I think I’m getting there, because I keep coming back to questions relevant to behavioural ecology even when studying pathogens [2].

In sum, the path my career has taken me and my cognitive limitations have left me with this basic truth:  I’m a scientific sight-reader.  What does that mean?  Lacking prodigious recall and Renaissance-man tendencies, it means that I’m always in the soup.  For one thing, I’m always having to look things up, even surprisingly basic things.  Usually, it’s to confirm to myself that my memory hasn’t played tricks on me (a problem that arises because I don’t tend to use the same techniques and knowledge repeatedly), but sometimes its simply because my background is shallow, not deep.  Sometimes, I’ve missed things.  In meetings or conversations, I have to think hard, because I need to be a step ahead of the conversation if I’m going to be of any use to it.  I need to find hooks to the knowledge that I do have, ways that I can draw analogies to and from things I know, applications to a problem that come from my background.  I’m always squinting, mumbling, and cursing my way through the fog of uncertainty, scrambling to stay one step ahead before I lose the plot. Like many things, this is both a blessing and a curse.  To the positive, though I’m not a world-expert in most of what I do, I can usually contribute something just by virtue of having that broad toolkit.  My years of experience with programming has led me to carving out a nice niche as a simulation guy in behavioural ecology – “computer jockey”, as my Ph.D. advisor put it.  That, my study of behaviour, and my background in statistics did get me the postdoc I’m holding now; I may be master of none, but I’m still a jack of all trades.  On the other side of the coin is the problem of depth.  I often need to rely on other, smarter people to make sure that I’m not making basic mistakes.  This isn’t all bad, as I love spending time picking the brains of those smart people and working with them.  But it certainly does not promote self-confidence, and I always feel like I’m one step away from being exposed as a fraud (though it’s probably sub-clinical).

Am I a poorer scientist for it?  In these days of increasing specialisation and balkanisation of scientific fields, there are many who would say yes.  And perhaps they’re right.  My interests tend toward the interdisciplinary, an idea to which much lip service is paid and little support seems to be given.  It’s certainly caused me no end of troubles, and it will probably keep causing more.  But I remain stubbornly convinced that there are benefits, too. Perhaps being forced to constantly leap about to stay in front has made me pay attention, if nothing else.  I don’t know where this will lead, but I do know one thing:  even if I’m not destined to change the world with my science, there’s nothing else on this earth that I would rather be doing with my life.


Recitals and exams, those were the parts of playing piano that I always hated the most.  They drew most strongly on the skills I had avoided, including long hours of careful repetition and memorisation down to the last note.  Not to say that good piano players are robots;  quite the contrary, that laser-like focus provides the raw material for some of the greatest musicianship known.  That sort of depth frees you to be creative by moving your cognition about what you’re doing to a more sophisticated level, somewhat like having a large vocabulary frees you to be able to read almost anything without needing to parse the text every time.  

I was never going to be a musician.  This doesn’t mean that my time was wasted, though, or that all was lost.  Years later, when I was hopelessly in love with the woman who would later become my wife (and she was as yet completely uninterested in me), I sat down with her at the piano and played an arrangement of a song I loved that I had never seen before.  I had played other arrangements of this piece and loved them, but this particular set of squiggles on the musical page was new to me.  Yet when I sat down at the piano and she snuggled in beside me, I was inspired to play that song as though I had been practicing it all my life.  And through the years, we’ve  talked about the history of the piece, and I’ve told her about some of the science – the mathematics, physics,  psychology, and biology – that informs music and musical experience.   My knowledge may not be deep, but its breadth can lead to unforeseen recombination;  that piece of music and my playing it for her became part of a tapestry of woven skill and knowledge that helped form my relationship with the person I love.  And, at the risk of post-hoc justification, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  

1. To be clear, I’m referring to his work only; I don’t know Dr. de Waal personally, though I have absolutely no reason to believe that he’s anything other than a perfectly nice person.
2. This is something I’ll be blogging more about as I develop the line of research and hopefully present it at ISBE in August.

One thought on “Sight-reading my science

  1. TGIQ says:

    I’ve had this post open in a tab for the past 2 days now, I’ve read it a few times. I can relate to a whole lot of this, and you’ve captured a lot of my own feelings and experiences extremely eloquently. GREAT post.

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