I want to spend a moment talking about scientists in love. Pierre and Marie Curie are perhaps the most famous power couple in all of science; together, they shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics for their studies of radiation. Marie went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 for her discoveries of radium and polonium, as well. Their daughter, Irène, went on to win the 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with her husband, Frédéric, for the discovery of induced radioactivity.

At the moment, Berkeley’s College of Chemistry has more than its share of scientific power couples: Teresa and Martin Head-Gordon, Marcin Majda and Birgitta Whaley, T. Don and Rosemary Tilley, Michelle and Chris Chang, Anne Baranger and John Hartwig, and Kristie Boering and Ron Cohen. As someone who is also in a scientific relationship (with fellow BSR blogger Piper J. Klemm), I wanted to share some of the benefits and challenges as I’ve experienced them:

  • Home becomes a science zone. Sitting at the breakfast table can be a moment to discuss the state of federal funding for science, and a walk to grab a cup of coffee might suddenly be a discussion of nonlinear optics. For partners who want a refuge from work and research, this can be sincerely frustrating; for others, that means that they can constantly talk about the things that excite them the most with someone who shares that interest. There are thrills to be had from highly overlapping knowledge bases.
  • Many research scientists keep long and highly irregular hours; that stochastic lifestyle can put serious strain on any relationship. A fellow scientist has had the same experiences and knows the delicate work/life balance—and can be understanding when it fails.
  • For two scientists hoping to advance in academia, the “two-body problem” presents itself: how do you find two appropriate post-doc or faculty positions in the same area? Only a few metropolitan areas in the continental US support the necessary job density. For career-driven individuals, the feeling that a career (and one’s potential) has been sacrificed can lead to bitterness.
  • Critical analysis forms the central fiber of scientific thought; that same attention to detail and improvement can be disastrous in the context of interpersonal relationships. There is nothing calming, relaxing, or friendly about being intensely analyzed. This extends beyond romantic relationships, and remains one of the essential challenges of being simultaneously an effective scientist and a good human being; at the end of the day, you have to turn down the hypercritical mindset when it isn’t productive.

I won’t pretend to offer solutions to these issues; they are far too complex and sophisticated to generalize. But just remember: the key to understanding scientists as public figures, and to maintaining a relationship with one, is to see the person under the lab coat.

 

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2 comments

  1. David Henderson

    Adam has pretty much nailed this. As half of a science power couple for 40 years now, I think the benefits far outweigh the problems. The two body problem is very real. I see it in hiring all the time.
    But one other thing about relationships that work is that there are always compromises involved. It is critical that the compromises be tolerable or the relationship won’t last. But all couples compromise about which side of the bed to sleep on, how to manage the toilet seat, who gets first crack at the magazines, etc.
    For science couples, those compromises sometimes extend to who gets the best job and who has to pick up the kids at day care.
    After 40 years of living this life, I would not trade it for anything, compromises and all. And in our case, we have been able to support and bolster each others careers and to find mutual research projects that took the couple thing to new levels.
    Power Couples Rock!

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