There are plenty of good things about being a postgraduate student in the History and Philosophy of Science. Being of any use to anyone is not one of them. Unfortunately, my calling offers precious little opportunities for those “man-on-the spot” moments, the ones where you can confidently intervene in a situation and resolve it using your skills. Doctors and nurses have them. Firemen, policemen, lifeuards, veterinarians, plumbers, electricians, lawyers too, in a way. I can easily think of “stand back, everyone” scenarios for engineers, athletes, chemists and physicists (MacGyver obviously cornering the market there), even IT professionals (in this I’ve been sort of preempted by xkcd, as usual) and Seinfeld memorably gave us the ultimate Marine Biologist fantasy.
With a bit of work we could probably produce a chart with all professions listed by their “it’s all right, I’m a ….” probability index, running from traumatologists and airline pilots downwards. And down at the very bottom, together with marketing directors, interior decorators and Dunkin’ Donuts employees, are us humanities postgrads. What we do may or may not matter, but no-one will ever expect us to save the day.
I can do helpful things if neccesary. Only last night Daniel was sick and I was efficiency itself (this, incidentally, included the completely non-ironic utterance of the phrase “go ahead, vomit on daddy.” Parents will understand me ). It’s just that as an academic of sorts, one’s contribution is more or less guaranteed to always be in the long run and the broad view, never in the Here&Now.
Which is why I will treasure this day from here on in. It started with an unexpected wallet I found at the train station. I glanced inside and noticed a library card – also, no credit cards and hardly any cash at all – and since I was heading towards the library anyway, it was but the work of a moment to decide that it would be wise to drop it off there. Good citizenship? Yes. Sensible decision-making? Quite. A dazzling display of creativity? Not really.
It was later that day, as I was bravely tapping away at this very keyboard, in that very library, that I heard murmurs behind me. The phrases “…article from Nature…New Scientist…minicells” gave me pause. I turned around discreetly – two librarians were Googling something, and they were, I could immediately sense, not getting anywhere. I took a deep breath and carpe diem‘d: I rose from my seat and said “excuse me, I’m a microbiologist, can I help?”
(note: I’m not a practicing microbiologist anymore, but I sensed that my true identity would be better left concealed for the time being, if only because by the time I finish saying “I’m a student in the field of the History, Sociology and Philosophy of Science” most people have already wandered off.)
It turned out that there was this nice man who was trying to obtain an article from “Nature Biotechnology”. His wife was ill, and he’d read about a new sort of treatment for it and wanted that article for her doctor to read. The library didn’t have access to Nature fulltext articles. I said “I have access” and got working. The article was located and printed, and off he went.
Now, you might say that it’s a very very small thing to do, bordering on the pathetic. It would be utterly pathetic to attach any importance to it. Luckily, I don’t attach any importance to it. This is simply the one and only scenario where my professional skills could conceivably have helped anyone in any way, and I wanted the record to show that life can, at times, trump hypothetical scenarios.