Leisure activities: The power of a pastime

Chris Woolston in Nature:

JobAlbert Einstein mastered the violin. Richard Feynman banged bongos. Following in the tradition of multi-talented physicists, Federica Bianco likes to take a break from her research to punch people in the face. Bianco, an avid boxer who is also an astrophysicist at New York University, flew to Richmond, California, for her first professional bout in April. It did not go well for her opponent. Bianco pinned her competitor to the ropes with a flurry of punches and did not let up until the referee called the fight. It took just one minute and twenty seconds. “I didn't want to stop, but she was taking too much punishment,” Bianco says.

For Bianco, boxing is not just a hobby; it is a total mind-and-body escape from her work. “As a scientist, I'm thinking about all sorts of things all the time,” she says. “The ring is quiet. You get tunnel vision. The other person is trying to take off your head and you have to deal with that.”

At a time when competition for science funding and job promotions sometimes resembles a boxing match, many researchers have trouble conceiving of an active life outside the lab. Indeed, there can be subtle — or not so subtle — pressures to sacrifice leisure time and put aside other interests for the sake of the next experiment, paper or conference talk. But many scientists say that their pastimes make them better researchers by sharpening their minds, building confidence and reducing stress. Their experiences should offer hope to researchers who are feeling overwhelmed by the pressure of their jobs. Release can be just a ride, jump, joke or punch away.

To be sure, some senior researchers in academia and other sectors still look askance at hobbies or leisure activities. Ryan Raver, now a product manager at the biotechnology firm Sigma-Aldrich in St Louis, Missouri, recalls an instance at the University of Wisconsin–Madison when one of his thesis-committee members was reluctant to sign off on his PhD because he thought that Raver spent too much time blogging and playing lead guitar in a hard-rock band. “He thought I should have been more focused on my work,” Raver says. “But playing in the band helped me survive grad school. It kept my excitement and motivation up. It pushed me through the day.”

Sean Carroll, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, wrote a blogpost advising scientists to choose their hobbies carefully, especially if they ever want to win tenure. Specifically, he counsels them to stay away from pastimes that could drain attention from science. “You are better off if your hobbies are nothing like your work,” he writes. “Permissible hobbies include skydiving, playing guitar, or cooking. Suspicious hobbies include writing of any sort (novels, magazine articles, blogs), programming or web stuff, starting a business, etc. Why? Because there's a feeling that this kind of activity represents time that could be spent on research.”
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