It is now time to come clean. This glittering depiction of the quest for knowledge is... well, perhaps not an outright lie, but certainly a highly edited version of the truth. Science is not a whirlwind dance of excitement, illuminated by the brilliant strobe light of insight. It is a long, plodding journey through a dim maze of dead ends. It is painstaking data collection followed by repetitious calculation. It is revision, confusion, frustration, bureaucracy and bad coffee. In a word, science can be boring.However . . .
My own brief and undistinguished research career included its share of mind-numbing tasks, notably the months of data processing which revealed that a large and expensive orbiting gamma-ray telescope had fixed its eye on the exploding heart of a distant galaxy and seen... nothing. I tip my hat, though, to New Scientist's San Francisco bureau chief, who spent nearly three years watching mice sniff each other in a room dimly lit by a red bulb. "It achieved little," he confesses, "apart from making my clothes smell of mouse urine." And the office prize for research ennui has to go to the editor of NewScientist.com. "I once spent four weeks essentially turning one screw backwards and forwards," he says. "It was about that time that I decided I didn't want to be a working scientist."
Boredom, it seems, is very much in the eye of the beholder. Scientists at the top of their game rarely become jaded, possibly because it is only the most tenacious individuals who ever succeed in research. Those with shorter attention spans - and you may pass your own judgement on the New Scientist staff mentioned earlier - are soon weeded out.
It's not all natural obsessiveness, though; there's an element of nurture too. Sulston points out that the most repetitious stuff happens only after years of working around a problem, trying to find a way in. By the time you are "strictly turning the handle", as he puts it, you may be the most skilled person at your chosen technique. Sulston ranked among the best in the world at keeping a close eye on slimy, grey microscopic worms, so using this skill became a pleasure.