I’m sure I’ve spoken on this before, and I’m sure I’ll speak on this again. Science is an act of collaboration. While there are the lone geniuses among us out there making independent breakthroughs in mathematics and thought, these brilliant minds would be nothing if there wasn’t a community to hear their theories, run with their ideas, and evolve in response to their new visualizations of reality. In my Quantum Mechanics course, we heard stories of the letters that flew from Dirac, and in astronomy it was Chandra who maintained his sanity through correspondence as he lived his life, one nobel prize at a time.
As a child enrolled in pull-out honors classrooms and sequestered in special science tracks, I grew to dread group projects. These were the times when my intellect made me a freak to be fought for because every team needed someone to do the worst of the work. There were the dioramas of English class, designed to depict “Lord of the Rings” in a shoe box. Always there was the person who did all the writing, the person who did all the building (sometimes the same person), and the person who did all of the whining (or people, as the case might have been). In this uneven pattern of inflicted group work, the smart were punished and the lazy were praised as we all shared the same grade. In lab this carried into our activities, our notebooks, our group reports. In history it was the class presentations. Over and over again it repeated until the teachers relented and the smart kids were allowed to work alone just to stop our whining.
Whoever got the neat idea it would be a good idea to partner the A kids with the F kids never stopped to think that also this would do is teach both sets of kids they were freaks not worth the teachers time.
As a college professor, I find myself looking out at a sea of young scientists and engineers who hate group assignments, and I need to find a way to teach them, as I learned the hard way, that group activities can be okay. (And I’m hoping I can teach this before their first group assignment, which is a week from Wednesday).
When works, collaboration can allow an intellectual conquering of the world as partners and teams run wildly through data and ideas, matching one persons strengths against another’s weaknesses so the can build a more capable whole.
The standard way to teach “Collaboration is Good” is to point at all the prominent discoveries that required large teams; the top quark had always been my perennial favorite. Today, Galaxy Zoo offers a new example of a powerful collaboration that anyone can participate in. Still, while neither of these projects could have been accomplished without large collaborations is always convincing.
Sometimes it helps to remind them of why I need collaborators, and why academics like to work in communities and travel to conferences.
As one person, I am capable of a lot of hard work, deep thought, and random acts of creativity, but it is hard to motivate myself forward in isolation. It is through talking, brainstorming, arguing and even sometimes shouting (I tend to avoid that) with collaborators and colleagues that ideas can go from shadows of possibility to reality. In the past couple years this has happened over and over again, as discussions with Fraser took us from thinking, “Reporting from conferences is neat” to creating our Astronomy Cast Live program, and as discussions on a small galaxy evolution literature search led to an SDSS data mining project, and much much more.
now as an adult who can choose my peers, I find that as I work on projects – education, media, and science alike – I have come to like working in partnership with others. My collaborators are people I can ask, “Is the idea crazy?” and to whom I can say, “I’m having a bad math day, can you help?” At home, discussions of astronomy research are met with blank stares, but with my colleagues I can laugh with giddy joy at our progress, and cry over coffee as we work late into the night to prevent mistakes from leading to failures.
A good collaborator is a friend who knows when to tell you your ideas are full of s***. And a good collaborator is someone who makes you keep trying until you come up with a good idea. It is all about the letter “C”: Coffee, communication, creativity, comradery, chardonnay or cider, curiosity, conclusions, collegiality, conferences, colloquiums, and yes, collaborating.
I have a personal policy of only working with people I like and/or respect. This is a luxury I hope never to be forced to give up. It was not a pleasure I had in school, and I don’t think I have any way to guarantee my students will not wish nasty things on the people they partner with in class. But. But maybe I can convince them collaboration is at least worth a try, and that it really can be easier to work with a partner than to work alone.
And really, it isn’t all just about dividing the work – it’s also about having a wingman as you work your way through a playing field of ideas. Tell me, interesting bit of science, have you met my collaborator? Perhaps the two of you should talk…