Annelie Drakman

Joy in Science – the Function of Positive Emotions in Autobiographies by Nobel Laureates in Physics

The aim of the project is to explain how and why successful scientists use positive emotion to describe their lives and work, and how this affects ideas about science 1901–2018. When Nobel laureates in physics from different countries, periods and specialities describe their own work, their depictions overflow with exuberance, interest, wonder and reverence. Why do physicists call their work "fun"? What are the roles of imagination and creativity, how is personal interest said to matter and how do such narratives change? What does the ubiquity of joy say about how science as an activity and the role of the scientist are socially constructed? Tools from literary studies will be used to analyze the self-narratives. Autobiographies by Nobel laureates in physics have been chosen as sources because of their great influence: Nobel laureates, especially in physics, are often quoted uncritically by schools, museums, and universities to explain what science is, why it matters and what kind of people scientists are. But despite their huge circulation and impact, few have analyzed autobiographies by scientists, and almost no one has investigated the use of positive emotion to shape the perception of science. The analysis of scientists descriptions of joy-filled science will contribute to the history and sociology of science, emotion and work, and help show how societal conceptions of individuality, reward and motivation have changed from the 20th century onwards.
Final report
When natural scientists from different countries, periods and specialties describe their own work today, they often speak about their own excitement, interest, wonder and awe. But different emotions have dominated during different periods, and serve different purposes. The project "Joy in Science – the Function of Positive Emotions in Autobiographies by Nobel Laureates in Physics" has investigated how and why Nobel laureates in physics so often use depictions of joy to describe their professional lives, and how these presentations have changed perceptions of science between 1901 and 2023.

The project was carried out via studies of the physicists' self-descriptions in memoirs, autobiographies, interviews and on websites. The overarching research questions have been: How have descriptions of personal motivations for being a scientist changed from the early 20th century onwards? What do recurring expressions of joy say about how science as an activity and the researcher as a person are socially constructed? These overarching questions were operationalized into more concrete questions, such as: why do Nobel laureates in physics so often call their work "fun" in the 21st century, but never before 1960? What happened when "creativity" came to be understood as essential to scientific research from the 1950s onwards in the United States?

In comparison to the project's starting point – memoirs by Nobel laureates in physics – more actors, forms of presentation and empirical examples came to be traced. The project became broadened to natural scientists between 1901 and today in a wider sense, not just Nobel laureates and not just physicists.
After about a year, I left the focus on memoir as a genre and became more interested in the history of emotions more broadly. An overarching ambition, which will continue long after this project ends, is and has been to explore what work descriptions of joy do in the world. In addition, I have focused closely on the history of American physics, especially during the Cold War.

The project's three most important results are, firstly, that "creativity" as a virtue fundamentally reshaped ideas about what science is and how it should be conducted from the 1960s onwards. The main reason for this is that creativity as a value has managed to neutralize several aspects of criticism directed towards natural science, big science and intellectual work in groups by highlighting a gentle rebelliousness that suggests anti-conformity and playfulness, but without threatening the system at large.

Secondly, "having fun" is a value judgment that seems simple and insignificant, but which in fact developed into a complex tool for conveying a wide range of important messages about independence, virtuosity and fearlessness from the mid-20th century onwards.

The project's conclusions show, thirdly, that there is a long line of important future research tasks linked to the historical dimensions of felt and expressed joy. Joy as a mental state, social value and aspiration has not been sufficiently explored, neither in the natural or social sciences, nor in the humanities. There exists surprisingly little historical research on joy, despite the fact that it has been of decisive importance in moral philosophy, Protestantism, for ideas about self-sufficiency, character and virtue, etc. This makes it reasonable to strive in the future to establish a new research direction: Joy Studies, under which one can collect humanistic research on laughter, humor, playfulness, positive emotions, etc. but also a critically scrutinizing view of such descriptions and of the people who take on themselves to be the evangelists of joy.

New research questions, which will be explored in future projects, include: why did creativity become such a universally beloved virtue? What other virtues were substituted, and with what consequences? How did changing ideas about masculinity affect the scientific personae? How does "having fun" function as a political value that signals freedom, and what is its connection to neoliberal market ideas? The focus on "creativity" has led to a number of new research collaborations with researchers at several different Swedish universities (e.g. Södertörn, Lund) which will result in several applications for future projects.

The project's results have been disseminated in multiple ways. First through an article on professional biographies with a particular focus on two physicists: Donna Strickland and Richard Feynman. This led to the co-authorship of a Swedish monograph, published in 2021, about the enchantment and disenchantment of science. I also wrote a more comprehensive research article about a new approach to knowledge formation from around the 1970s onwards which I call "authentic creativity". This means that researchers allow their own preferences and subjective idiosyncrasies to function as a moral compasses for scientific path choices. I also co-wrote an article in English about combining close and distant reading, showing how I used the concordance tool Sketch Engine to analyze how the term "Creativity" was used on the Anglophone Internet one day in 2014. Finally, the article "The Seductive Scientist" was published in Notes and Records of the Royal Society in August 2023. There, I argued that expressions of joy in autobiographies became popular largely thanks to the establishment of this new seductive scientific persona in the period 1968–1988 by two American scientists: Richard Feynman and James Watson.

In addition, several publications are still in the development phase. One example is a chapter for an international anthology on "scientific heroism" (planned publication 2024, Amsterdam University Press). This text discusses playfulness in autobiographies of physicists during the American 1950s, with a particular focus on Edward Teller and Luis Alvarez.

Apart from through publications, I have disseminated the research results in multiple ways, both within science and in the surrounding society, in Sweden and internationally.
Firstly, through the summer course "The History of Joy" [”Glädjens idéhistoria”], which I proposed and created from scratch. It was given for the first time in 2022, and attracted an unusually large number of applying students. It was also given in the summer of 2023 and will be given in the summer of 2024.

Second, by presenting it internationally. Admittedly, several planned stints as a visiting scholar, i.a. one at the history department at Oxford University, were canceled due to the pandemic. But the project has been presented at nine international conferences, workshops, and higher seminars. Some examples include a conference for the history of emotion at Washington D.C., USA, a higher seminar at the history department at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, a higher seminar at the Center for History of Emotions at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin, Germany, and two presentations at the Niels Bohr Archive at Copenhagen, Denmark, both at a conference arranged by the American Institute of Physics and an invitation to present at their higher seminar.

In addition, I have taught about the project as a guest lecturer at the course "Science and Politics" at Harvard University in Cambridge, USA. I am also planning to arrange an international workshop on "Subjective well-being" during the 1970s with researchers from Uppsala University and ETH Zurich.

I have also presented in Sweden. Partly through a number of internal seminars at the Department of Culture and Aesthetics at Stockholm University. Partly through 14 presentations around Sweden outside my home institution, for example on doctoral courses in chemistry at Stockholm University and in physics at Lund University, an episode on joy from Bildningspodden, a presentation at the Gender Academy, a panel at the Kungliga Vetenskaps- och Vitterhetssamhället in Gothenburg, a presentation at Senioruniversitetet, a presentation at Nobel Calling 2022 and a panel discussion at Nobel Calling 2021, and higher seminars at Lund and Uppsala University, KTH and Södertörn University. I was also invited to present the project to the physics department at Lund University in May 2023.

The Joy in Science project has thus strongly contributed to the development of new ideas, projects and collaborations in several research areas. These new ways forward will be pursued after the end of the project on several levels, both through planned future presentations, both internationally and in Sweden, multi-year research applications in collaboration with researchers at other universities, as well as several planned publications.
Grant administrator
Stockholm University
Reference number
SEK 2,186,000.00
RJ Projects
History of Ideas