Individual Interviews

I conducted six individual interviews with members of the planetary science group that were regularly present at group meetings during my time in the field. To give a comprehensive impression of these interviews, I present two of them in greater detail, offering a selective overview that is organized to show my interview material in as much breadth and variety as possible while highlighting aspects relating to my philosophical interest. (Emphasis in interview quotes is always added by me.) What these interviews convey are individual perspectives, offering the personal experiences and opinions of practicing scientists. I will indicate which reactions and thoughts their utterances have triggered in me and which foreshadow the themes ofepistemological significance that I will elaborate upon in later chapters.

Adam: 'I could work alone'

The conversation I had with Adam, a physicist, was one of my longest interviews in the group. In contrast to the other interviewees, he is a native English speaker and the interview quickly unfolded in a calm, but steady, flow.

In Adam’s view, the simulation facility in the basement below the physics department is crucial to the group and its research. Adam has contributed substantially to the design and construction of their two latest simulation tunnels. As it is his job to run this facility and assist others in conducting simulation experiments, he is co-authoring a large number of journal articles, contributing information about the experimental set-up and adding to the interpretation of experimental data and the conclusion of several papers. For this reason, he describes himself in the interview as a “focal point" for other group members, a contact person for questions regarding their simulation method. His responsibility for a complex experimental facility means that his role could be perceived as mere technical support. Therefore, he goes to some length to emphasize the fact that he pursues his “own research":

Originally I was I guess employed to run the [simulation facility] which is — could in principle just be like a technical position where you run a facility which is why I for many years had a technical type of employment. However, I do my own research. I always have, from the start I always did my own experiments. So, I have like at least two roles.

It is important for Adam to underline his intellectual autonomy as a researcher with a particular field of expertise. In this context, he emphasizes that he, like other core group members, pursues his individual research interests within the group and “on the side," collaborating with international colleagues outside the group. In that regard, he explains, the planetary science group is “a kind of unusual collaboration," as group members “[s]ometimes [...] do experiments essentially alone, and sometimes it becomes very collaborative."

The group members’ collaborative efforts, as Adam sees it, are not driven by shared research interests: “[B]asically we have different interests in [planets]. Like - life on [planets], that’s one question, but that isn’t the central issue that I deal with. A lot of what I think that I do is — I would call comparative planetology." Adam goes even so far as to say that he pursues his individual research interest “essentially on his own" and “together with students." His research interest as such, he explains, does not tie him to the group. “But it ties me to the [simulation facility]," he adds. Asked whether he could, in the long run, do his research without the planetary science group, he replies:

I could work alone down in the [simulation facility] in the lab doing my physics things and still collaborate internationally with people. That would work, but I think we would miss out on a lot of, we would miss out on a lot of research and there are a lot of new avenues that have started up purely because we are a bunch of experts all talking together.

Like Laurits, Adam underlines the important role that regular meetings play and how they provide a forum for discussing recent findings, deciding on the next experimental steps and agreeing on the outline of the argument which is to constitute their next jointly authored paper. These meetings also provide an opportunity to discuss different viewpoints so that group members understand each other’s distinct disciplinary perspectives and can explain to one another how they would interpret the measurements that they have obtained. The back and forth between explaining and understanding is an interactive process that has the function of bringing “[...] all up to speed, [so that] we’re all sort of knowing the same sort of thing." Such a common understanding forms the basis of collaborative experimentation.

To underline the role ofsuch a common understanding, let me refer to an episode in the interview where Adam describes an incident of severe disagreement with a collaborator outside the group’s core. While it is usually not a problem to agree on a jointly authored paper, a couple of years ago members of the planetary science group were in disagreement with an outside collaborator, who refused to accept the conclusion which the group had reached on the basis of various measurements, some of which he had taken. As a consequence, he asked to “take his name off the paper" and the remaining authors had to find a colleague with a matching field of expertise who could step in. “[I]t’s sad when that happens," Adam tells me, “but it’s kind of rare. It doesn’t happen a lot—not to us anyway. And it doesn’t happen in-house." This is because “[...] if we disagree with the conclusions of it, then we would — we do some more measurements until we, we’re sure."

The group offers its members the opportunity to engage collaboratively in an “ongoing research line," as Adam formulates it. There is a continuous discourse among group members and a continuous trail of collaborative experimentation, even though not all core group members are necessarily involved at one point in time. The biologists, Adam points out, have a different experimental rhythm, one of the reasons being that it takes them much longer than anyone else to prepare their organic samples. Still, their frequent and regular face-to-face contact allows them to “[...] perform ongoing research in a way that you can’t do with [an outside] long range collaboration." With outside collaborators, Adam usually works on “well-formulated projects" that are likely to carry a short-time reward in the form of a joint publication. Inside the group, “[w]e could just try something a little bit crazy and see what happens." Like Laurits, Adam describes the collaborative practice within their group as a process in which one question leads to another: “[W]e think this, but we’re not sure, I mean it could be this or this and how do we show which one of these it is? And then you start talking about experiments."

 
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