When I was little, I wanted to know everything. At age six or seven, I could whip out an explanation of why the sun shines, nuclear fusion and all, and by the time I hit my teens, I’d memorised the basic properties of a couple of hundred dinosaur genera, everything cetacean, and every planet in the solar system (back when that still included Pluto :-P) My family members are still a bit surprised if a science question comes up over the dinner table and I answer “I don’t know”.
During my undergrad years, specialisation was my nightmare. While I could, I took classes in maths, programming, geology and something vaguely philosophy of science-ish in addition to my compulsory credits in biology. My BSc is called evolutionary biology, but the actual subjects I studied for it range all the way from biochemistry to ecology.
But you know what?
After 2+ years of working on a single part of a single animal, I finally feel like I know something.
As an obsessive learner and insufferable know-it-all, the real world was bound to give me some big shocks. The first was venturing onto the internet, and getting a near-infinite pile of information dumped on me by Google. That experience might have been why I lost most of my interest in dinosaurs – there just seemed to be too much to learn. That’s a hard pill to swallow for a young know-it-all!
And then I went to university, and met the scientific literature. Even more than first googling dinosaurs, that made me realise that I knew nothing. Ever since then, I’ve never quite felt secure about my grasp of any field. There were always papers I hadn’t read, ideas I didn’t really understand, facts I hadn’t included in my reckoning. I often feel like I can’t form an opinion on anything, because there’s a part of a discussion I’ve simply missed or didn’t pay enough attention to.
No, I’m nowhere near satisfied with my current knowledge of my own area (now that I have an area I can call my own). I don’t think I’ll ever be, and if it happens it’s probably a good sign that I should read more. But when I look at my animals, when I have to tell others about my work, I feel… comfortable. This is my stuff, and while I may not know everything, I know some things in an intimate way only close study can give you. It is an immensely satisfying feeling. And it makes me think that perhaps, specialisation isn’t such a bad thing after all.