It’s been a while since I’ve blogged. That’s because blogging trades space in the third of my three hobbies. You’ll understand if you read to the end.

The title of this post might sound like I’m going to prescribe three hobbies from which scientists must choose. Nope. Instead, I want to suggest that as a pro scientist, I find that I have time to pursue three hobbies outside of my academic work and family responsibilities. I’ll explain the three that I choose, but my observations suggest that any number of other hobbies could fill these spots.

  1. Exercise. OK, so I suggested I wouldn’t prescribe any particular hobbies, but I’m going to strongly encourage this one. I’ve got chronic asthma, so my physicians have always told me to get as much exercise as I possibly can. In graduate school I discovered that exercise had the additional effect of dispersing the stress that I experienced as a budding academic. I know that all of the stress I experience as an academic is imaginary (at least compared to the stress experienced by policemen, physicians, surgeons, firefighters, and soldiers), but that’s the subject for a different post. When I work out, I burn up all of the stress, and I find myself better able to tackle problems at work. So, exercise has to always be my number 1 hobby. In graduate school, I trained up to completing triathlons. Now I’ve moved on to the Spartan Race.This week I completed my first one (123 minutes!), and I’m setting a goal for next year’s race (95 minutes!).

    I also do science!

  2. Comic Books. When I left undergraduate at the University of Tennessee, several folks told me to have fun reading for pleasure that last summer, because I’d never get to read for fun again once I started graduate school. Nothing could be further from the truth. I do spend a lot of time reading for my work, but I’ve never quite given up pleasure reading, and you shouldn’t either. Foolishly, I took the advice about reading my first year of graduate school, and only read prose for work. I soon realized that I needed to read fiction to keep my mind limber and to keep from getting bored: scientific papers can be extremely boring, especially to a first-year graduate student! So I picked up some Harry Harrison, and I read my wife’s copies of the Lord Peter mysteries, and I read Usagi Yojimbo… And many other things. Once I became a pro, and I had more money, I realized I could get back into comic books, which I had dropped after my undergraduate as ‘too immature’. Ha! Now the only pleasure reading I do is my superhero comics. I just had to get over the price tag: $3 a comic still seems too steep for me (although it’s not too bad, adjusted for inflation).

    That’s right, my kids and I have matching Justice League Converse.

  3. Everything else. OK, so when I was idealistic in graduate school, I only wanted to do things that I could do well. So I would stop at number three. Now, I’m happy to use hobby slot #3 as a place to follow my nose. For the longest time, this spot was only ‘working on the car’. And I think it will change back to that spot this winter when the nights get long in Oregon again. I also use this spot for ‘playing video games’ and for ‘blogging’. See, I can do any of these things as a third hobby for short intervals, but not well. If I wanted to do them well, I wouldn’t be able to swap in the other activities. So, for example, if I wanted to be one of those social-media-savvy scientists who blog two or more times a week and have a huge following, I’d have to spend all of my #3 hobby time on blogging. Which I just don’t find interesting enough. Or, if I wanted to win more than 3rd place in the ‘under construction’ category, I’d spend all of my #3 hobby time on my sports car. Or if I wanted to actually be able to compete at chess, I’d spend more time on chess. And I can never completely give up video games. Twice in my life I’ve forsworn videogames: once to finish my undergraduate thesis, and once to complete my dissertation. But I always come back… I guess the uniting feature of these third-place hobbies is that I can pick them up and drop them with no harm to my enjoyment. I’m not going to get involved in any additional hobbies that require a lot of maintenance: I’m too busy working out and reading my comics.

    I’m proud because that’s a 1968 Dodge Charger marker light on my 1974 Jensen Healey! It’s now officially a custom car.

Some additional points to support the three-hobby idea:

I’ve had my long-term relationship since before I started graduate school. My wife, Samantha Hopkins, and I have been married for 13 years, and I put my relationship (and now my kids!) at the top of my priorities, above work, above exercise, above comics. So, what I’m saying is that I think a pro scientist can do her or his job, have a family life, and have three hobbies. Now, that’s if you’re already settled in your relationship. If you’re still looking for a life partner, that might end up eating into one or more of the hobby spots. I can’t say, because I’ve been fortunate enough never to need to do that. I’m just being a good scientist and admitting my own subjective failings as an observer.

Why, you ask, should it matter whether you have hobbies as a pro scientist? Wouldn’t the best scientist be someone who devotes all of her or his attention to work? Well, no, not really. I know a few scientists who are fortunate enough to have hobbies that directly connect to their scientific life. I’m really happy for them, because they can decompress while adding more academic productivity, but that wouldn’t work for me. I don’t think people can pick their hobbies any more than they can pick their true loves. Don’t get me wrong: I love science; however, I need time for other activities to allow me to relieve stress from my work. Hobbies must be for relieving stress; otherwise, why bother? Similarly, I know that many of my colleagues would find rebuilding carburetors a frustrating chore, but for me it’s idyllic bliss. I would rebuild carburetors all the time, if I weren’t also busy adding a remote trunk latch or converting the side marker lights on the car (see above). So, if you have a hobby that directly improves your work, great.

But hobbies that aren’t directly linked to your work can be the best ones for giving you the insights you need to be the best scientist you can. In my post on General Neyland’s football maxims, I talked about the need to be ready to take advantage of transformative moments. The NSF really wants to fund transformative science. Where do these transformations come from? I would argue that some (if not all) come from making important new connections between concepts that arise from analogies to outside hobbies. For example, Gould and Lewontin made a big contribution to evolutionary biology with their paper on evolutionary spandrels. What are those? Well, besides many other things, they are a transformative concept that arose because of studying architecture as a hobby. Another example, from my personal experience: every important idea I’ve had in my science has come to me while either running or swimming.

Hobbies give you a diversity of experience. Diversity in groups leads to improved goup function. Diveristy within your personal experience gives you more analogies to make and more opportunities to transform your (and the community’s) understanding of your science. Don’t shut yourself in with your research. Take time to go sailing or bicycling or read that trashy fantasy novel or cook that new recipe. Do your job as a scientist: think and make connections.

I want to give a shout-outs to two former students who blog at fossilosophy and have helped with the hobbies listed here. Brianna McHorse completed the Spartan with me and is goading me into my time goal for next year’s race. She will be starting graduate work at Harvard this fall. Kelsey Stilson goaded me into reading comic books again. She’s starting graduate work at Texas this fall.