"A lot of science is about obsessing over extreme details. And a lot of scientists consequently develop a very narrow focus. That scares me, I don’t want to be like that! At heart I’m a scientist... but I’ll always maintain a range of specialisations."
Dr David Glowacki is a theoretical chemist, author, inventor, and the creator of danceroom spectroscopy, an interactive science-meets-art installation that has introduced the beauty and complexity of the atomic world to thousands of people across the UK and Europe.
Originally from Milwaukee, David came to the UK in 2003 on a Fulbright scholarship to study cultural theory at the University of Manchester, subsequently completing a PhD in physical chemistry at Leeds before arriving at Bristol.
Based in Bristol’s Centre for Computational Chemistry, he has collaborations across several areas of chemistry, using tools from classical and quantum mechanics to understand a range of nano-physics relevant to gases, solids, and liquids.
David’s inimitable approach to investigating quantum and classical dynamics has seen him published across a range of subjects and publications, including high level scientific journals, and has earned him a global reputation in both the scientific and creative world, thanks in part to danceroom spectroscopy, which to date, has featured at Bristol’s Arnolfini, the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, and London’s Barbican Arts Centre.
During my undergraduate years, most of my education was funded by a combination of scholarships and financial aid. There was a small portion that I was responsible for covering, which my parents helped me out with. I really wanted to study philosophy at university, but my dad said he’d withdraw financial support if I didn’t study a scientific subject. So I studied chemistry, but along the way carried on taking lots of courses in math, philosophy, comparative literature, and religious studies.
When I was younger, I wanted to be a fighter pilot. At some stage, I realized that it could involve taking orders from the dark side. I lost interest.
I think that I’m tremendously privileged to have the job I have. I get to think about interesting questions related to what drives dynamics and change at some very fundamental levels of matter. I also get to chat with all sorts of people across a range of fields who are engaged in similar pursuits.
When research progress is going well and I’m learning new things, it’s a real buzz, and it’s easy to get out of bed. When there’s a dry spell, I have to remind myself that it’s a privilege to have the space and time to think and read.
Usually reading fiction keeps me up at night. Sometimes science does too. Lots of scientific problems are extremely intellectually consuming. When it’s going well, and there’s momentum, I don’t mind it keeping me up. When it’s not going so well, I stay awake doing other stuff.
It takes lots of things to succeed as a scientist. For myself, motivation is fundamental. I have to continually remind myself why I care about the problem at hand. If I do, then I know I’ll have the energy to stay engaged with the research, learn new things, and take interesting approaches.
It also means I’ll have the enthusiasm to effectively communicate the problem to a range of people and try and get them excited about it too.
For me, the criteria is whether I’m actually interested in what I’m doing, beyond simply going to work every day. Sometimes it can be tricky to be honest with yourself about that.
I love Feynman’s quote about self-honesty: ‘...you must [be careful] not to fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you've not fooled yourself, it's easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that’.
Learning new things basically amounts to an exercise in realising how little of the universe and my experience of it I know about. It rapidly leads me to the conclusion that what I know about represents an infinitesimally tiny cross-section of what’s out there.
Sometimes I feel like abandoning the whole exercise, moving up in the mountains, and getting a job as a mystic.
Lots of the time I doubt my findings, approaches, and hypotheses. But here again the Feynman strategy about self-honesty is useful.
Also, even if you’re not totally sure you’ve got the story, I think that there’s value in being honest about that, and presenting to others where you’re at and how you’re thinking about a problem. Oftentimes, other people will give you a fresh way to look at things.
I’m relatively young, but my work has so far covered lots of territory: classical and quantum dynamics, biochemistry, computer programming, atmospheric chemistry, scientific instrument development, optics, spectroscopy, religion and power, and cultural theory.
Increasingly, I’m finding that I’m able to see problems in the context of the bigger picture – and to draw together approaches across a range of fields to think about particular scientific problems. I find this fascinating.
There’s not a lot of interaction between the scientific and non-scientific worlds, but I think it’s increasing. Within science, the devil is in the details. And after you spend lots of time intensely focussed on the details, it can be a real challenge to engage with folks – even other scientists – that aren’t up on all the details.
Science is ultimately a human endeavour. It’s enabled by the societal matrix in which it’s embedded, which includes cultural trends, politics, and funding. So I think that on a fundamental level, science has a responsibility to the society that enables it.
I see scientists as stewards of knowledge with a responsibility to share their knowledge with others and use it for good. On the other hand, it’s easy for scientific expertise to be exploited by darker forces within the world, so I think that scientists have a tremendous responsibility to ensure that this does not happen.”
Watch David discuss danceroom spectroscopy in our new film Quantum collision: a meeting of science, art, dance and music.