Scientific Anthology: How Hobbies Affect Scientific Exploration


As the saying goes, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." What they don't tell you is that it also makes Jack less likely to succeed at work. In the next fifteen examples, you will see the value of play--hobbies--in addition to work, specifically scientific exploration. In his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson reports how hobbies have benefited the scientific community through many generations.

"Legendary innovators like Franklin, Snow, and Darwin all possess some common intellectual qualities—a certain quickness of mind, unbounded curiosity—but they also share one other defining attribute. They have a lot of hobbies" (Johnson, 172).

The innovative power that comes from balancing work and play--career and hobbies--has always been present in scientific exploration. This anthology will describe how that power is still at work today.

Benefits of Hobbies

Non-scientific hobbies for scientists have several benefits. First, they promote a healthy, balanced life. If a person were to only focus on one subject, the person would become overwhelmed. In addition to an unhealthy mental state, the obsessive nature of only focusing on one subject, project, or experiment can result in a mental stand-still. Without outside knowledge or understanding on how to circumvent issues that may arise, there is no way that one could overcome them.

With an assortment of hobbies, one is able to gain different perspectives, relieve stress, and gain confidence. According to Vital Wellness' "5 Health Benefits of Having Hobbies", multiple hobbies are essentially mental exercise. This means that having multiple focuses (the first being one's career, the others being one's extracurricular hobbies) keeps one's mind healthy and sharp. Clinical psychologist Dr. Timothy Sharp explains in this video how hobbies are beneficial to people because, "when we do them, we feel good, we create positive emotion, which creates positive momentum and then increases our chances of happiness and success in all areas of life."

Dr. Bonnie Bassler, a prominent biochemist who studies communication between bioluminescent bacteria, has many non-scientific hobbies which she uses to promote balance in her life. Singing, dancing, and acting  are just some of the ways that Dr. Bassler relaxes after working in the lab all day. Since all three of these are alternate forms of communication, Dr. Bassler can understand more about the communication between bacteria after studying these subjects.

Therefore, scientists in particular need to have multiple hobbies in order to expand their minds and ways of thinking beyond their particular field of interest. Having these multiple perspectives allows scientists to understand the problems they encounter in new ways, and develop specific solutions to these problems.
Are there certain hobbies scientists should have to receive the most benefits?

Now that we have established that hobbies are necessary for scientists to thrive in their respective fields, the question is: are there specific hobbies that scientists should have in order to be the most successful?

Some of the most well-known scientists, including Albert Einstein and Max Planck, played musical instruments (the violin and piano, respectively). Knowing that some of the greatest minds in science share the same type of hobby, I believe that there must be some intellectual benefits to playing musical instruments.

According to the Time Magazine article, "This Is How Music Can Change Your Brain", when students actively engage in music they can reap the cognitive benefits and develop "neurophysiological distinction". Essentially, this means that students who practice music enhance their "neural processing" and stimulate the brain in a different area than the traditional curriculum (i.e.: reading, writing, and arithmetic).

Overall increased brain stimulation means that the brain is constantly active and exercising in different ways. Therefore, the person who is involved in multiple and assorted activities will increase her mental processing in a variety of areas. The person would then be able to see the same problem in a variety of ways, and conclude with a solution that may be unique to her wider range of knowledge that she learned from playing a musical instrument.

Since most people are already actively listening music, it is easy to see the benefits it may bring. This 2012 study of European youths showed that most of their free time is spent listening to music anyway. Asking them to be more interactive and start playing an instrument would not be difficult, and only provide benefits for them.


This is not to say that playing a musical instrument is the best hobby for a scientist to develop. However, it is important for scientists to develop hobbies outside of the scientific and mathematic field so that they may exercise the areas of their brains that are not as stimulated while they are working in the lab or researching.

We are calling for more STEM subjects, but eliminating the arts, why?

Since proving that hobbies in the arts stimulates parts of the brain that would not normally be stimulated in an purely scientific environment, it should be clear that the balance of both the arts and sciences are keys to smooth, genuine progress in both fields.

If this is true, then the massive push for more science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) courses in school makes perfect sense. However, the massive decrease in the importance of the arts and humanities subjects is illogical.

Obviously the governmental push for STEM education is well founded since the STEM work force is in need of educated innovators. Not only does STEM education create future innovators, but it also promotes critical thinking and gives students access to rapidly developing field. All of these reasons make STEM education invaluable. As we have already discussed, though, STEM fields only stimulate one part of the brain. So as invaluable as they are, they do not completely develop a student's mind, nor do they completely prepare them for their future.

A combination of arts and STEM education will create well-rounded and prepared students. There are several benefits to arts education, as seen in this  info graph:

arts motivating

Not only does art education help with success in school and work, it also improves cognitive skills that are necessary for development and progress.

It is evident that STEM education is incredibly important. However, this should not take away from art and humanities education. Both of these subjects create balance within a person's development. Also, both fields support each other. As sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz has said, "Art does not solve problems, but makes us aware of their existence".  While the arts and humanities open our eyes to assorted issues and experiences in our world, science and technology  give us the resources to solve these issues. Therefore, these two need balance in our educational system.
Science as a Hobby 

There are many people who have scientific activities as their hobbies. These amateur scientists use their free time to research, experiment, and report their scientific findings. It's fascinating that these individuals without backgrounds or even higher education in science can make some of the most revolutionary scientific discoveries.

One of the most famous amateur scientists is Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian monk who essentially began the study of genetics. Mendel performed simple experiments, using only pea plants that he grew in his garden. In school Mendel had excelled in math and physics, but, instead of entering the scientific field or educational studies, dedicated his life to Augustinian order at the St. Thomas Monastery in Brno. While living at the monastery, Mendel chose to study the genetics of pea plants and how their inherited traits revealed themselves in each generation. One of the most important discoveries in science, one that created an entirely new field of study, was found my an amateur scientist.

gregor mendel

If a man without any background in biology can become "the father of modern genetics", then the question arises: what makes a person a scientist?, a website dedicated to scientific career tips, declares that "the two most common characteristics of scientists are curiosity and patience." Curiosity pushes them to ask questions about the universe. Patience is necessary to work through research, experiments, and failure. In addition to these qualities, Dr. Nizar Matar, a chemistry professor at An-Najah National University, writes, "A true scientist is a person who follows the scientific way of thinking which includes observation, testing or experimentation, obtaining results and then drawing conclusions[.] A scientist as such is objective & subjective and with no personal bias or unfounded prejudgment."

Neither of these accounts claim that scientists must have degrees or certain studies under their belts. Therefore anyone can be declared a scientist, if she meets these requirements: curiosity, patience, observing and testing theories logically, and reporting findings objectively without personal bias. Science can be a hobby for some and a career for others. In fact, when treated as a hobby, science could be more successful than ever before.

How to Make a Hobby a Career

Hobbies are special interest activities that people do recreationally outside of their regular jobs. But what happens when one's hobby becomes profitable and marketable? In that case, the hobby is on its way to becoming a career.

People often say that if you do what you love, you never work a day in your life. So turning a hobby into a career is ideal. In fact, Joyce K. Reynolds , a business career coach, says that looking for career options in personal hobbies will "provide the most fruitful direction for highly successful career choices."  So many people have decided to turn their hobbies into million-dollar careers. For instance, Kim Lavine turned her small crafting projects (microwavable pillows for her daughter's teachers) into a business when her husband lost his job.

In order to become a leader in your field, Forbes Magazine suggests you teach or write about your hobby to make more people aware of your hobby's benefits. In this way, amateur scientists have the ability to overcome their amateur status and actually accomplish great things in assorted scientific fields. In addition to Gregor Mendel, mentioned in the last example, several well-known scientists without scientific degrees have become famous due to their writings, witnesses, and public experiments. Benjamin Franklin, who was educated and trained in newspaper printing, is considered "America's first scientist" because of his notable inventions, such as the bifocals and the Franklin Stove. His endless curiosity (one of the key attributes of a scientist) inspired him to pursue scientific innovation. His story, however, is different from Mendel, who tried to spread awareness of his scientific hobby but did not get recognition until after he had died. Franklin is famous for his inventions and scientific connections despite not having been an actual, educated scientist. There is even a museum, The Franklin Institute, completely dedicated to Franklin's scientific research and innovation.

Franklin actively made a career, and a lasting impression, from his small hobby, while Mendel already had a vocation and was just pursuing science on his own time. Amateur scientists could become true scientists. Recreational hobbies can turn into careers, if the hobbyist is actively seeking it.
Hobbies Within Science

Some of the scientists Johnson mentioned in his book had hobbies within other scientific fields. He makes it clear that any kind of hobby can benefit a scientist's research--it's all about expanding one's knowledge and skill set.
"[Charles Darwin] studied coral reefs, bred pigeons, performed elaborate taxonomical studies of beetles and barnacles, wrote important papers on the geology of South America, spent years researching the impact of earthworms on the soil. None of these passions were central to the argument that would eventually be published as On the Origin of Species, but each contributed useful links of association and expertise to the problem of evolution." -Johnson, page 172

Charles Darwin is one example of a scientist who had hobbies within science that weren't directly related to his field of study, but they helped with his research nonetheless.

Another scientist Johnson mentioned is John Snow.


Snow is credited with discovering the cause of a terrible cholera outbreak in London in 1854. According to Johnson, Snow's experience with both anesthesia and work as a physician was vital to this discovery, which helped save lives.

"One reason he was able to see around the biases of the reigning ‘miasma’ theory of the day—which maintained that cholera was caused by the inhalation of noxious vapors—is that his work with anesthesia had given him a hands-on knowledge of the way that gases diffused through the atmosphere. Snow reasoned that a disease transmitted by poisonous gas would leave a distinct pattern in the geographical spread of mortality: massive death in the immediate proximity of the bad smells, tapering off very quickly as one moved away from the original source. By the same token, Snow’s training as a physician helped him shed the miasma blinders as well: from tending to patients ill with cholera, Snow observed that the effects of the disease on the human body indicated that the agent had been ingested, not inhaled, given that it did almost all of its direct damage in the digestive system and left the lungs largely unaffected. In a real sense, for Snow to make his great breakthrough in understanding cholera, he had to think like a molecular chemist and like a physician." -Johnson, pages 173-174
Exercise for Science
According to this article, the number one way to maintain brain function is to regularly exercise. Exercising several times a week, at a level that raises your heart rate and opens your sweat glands can improve memory and brain function. According to Harvard, exercise at this level increases the size of the hippocampus. This part of the brain is responsible for verbal memory and learning. Both of which are obviously beneficial areas for scientists to improve. Exercises such as resistance training or muscle toning did not improve the hippocampus size. So stick to cardio if you want a genius level IQ. According to this Harvard article, exercise can affect the brain both directly and indirectly.

Directly, exercise reduces insulin resistance, and inflammation. Both of which bog down brain function. Even more importantly exercise increases the release of growth factors into the brain that improve the health of brain cells and stimulate the creation of new blood vessels within the brain, both of which improve cognitive function. Dr. Scott McGinnis at BYU says, exercise can increase the size of the prefrontal cortex as well as the medial temporal cortex, which both affect how people think. Exercise indirectly also improves sleep function and improves mood as well as reduces anxiety. All of these can improve how people think and learn, especially scientists. All of these factors contribute to a final conclusion about exercise as a hobby. If you want to be a successful scientist, cardiovascular exercise should be one of your regular hobbies.

Famous Scientist Athletes

If exercise makes you so smart, then there must be many famous scientists who also excelled on the field or court. Their high functioning brains were stimulated by the regular cardiovascular exercise they experienced during high school, college, and their careers. This article highlights 10 scientists who did just that. Not only are they in the science textbooks, but they were also athletes. Ernest Rutherford, who is well known as the founder of nuclear physics, was an avid rugby player while he attended both Nelson College in New Zealand and the University of Canterbury in England. Apparently the cardiovascular benefits were useful to him while he was studying how molecules behave. Buzz Aldrin, the man who piloted Apollo 11, the first successful lunar mission, was also a very successful quarterback when he attended Montclair High School in New Jersey. He however decided to give up football when he attended the Military Academy at West Point.

Here however, regular PT would keep his brain stimulated and able to fly a space shuttle to the moon. Edwin Hubble, the famous astronomer, whom the Hubble Telescope is named after, was a collegiate level track and field and basketball athlete at the University of Chicago. He even won a national championship of Basketball with the Maroons in 1909. All of these scientists are proof that exercise serves a purpose for scientists as a hobby. The regular cardiovascular exercise may have increased the size of their hippocampi to the point that they were able to develop exceptional scientific minds.


Scientists Teaming Up With Hobbyists

This episode of the NPR show Forum with Michael Krasny, focuses on a project in Golden Gate National Parks called BioBlitz. This project that is sponsored by the National Parks Service as well as by National Geographic, has the goal of tracking the biodiversity within Golden Gate National Park near San Francisco, California. The 90 mile stretch of wilderness stretches along the California coast and is incredibly biologically diverse. According to the host, half of all species of birds found within the US can be found in Golden Gate National Park. With all this diversity, it is tough for just the Parks Service to keep track of every species within the park's borders. This difficulty sparked the idea for BioBlitz.


This partnership between Scientists and Hobbyists, mainly school students interested in nature, was formed to measure the populations of every species found within the 90 mile coastline. The scientists alone that are employed to keep track of the diversity are not capable of this massive task. So in partnership with volunteer hobbyists they organize for a 24 hour blitz of research. Recreational birdwatchers work side by side with trained researchers.  The partnership takes what could potentially be months of work and completes it within 24 hours. From birds of prey to butterflies, dragonflies and marine animals, scientists and hobbyists work side to measure these staggering migrations of animals through Golden Gate National Park. The BioBlitz is the perfect example of how Scientists can not only be hobbyists, but can work with them to improve their research.

What is a Multipotentialite?

Multipotentialite. Renaissance Person. A Polymath. A Scanner. Emily Wapnick uses these names any time she is talking about any person with many interests and creative pursuits in her TED Talk. The types of people often switch careers often when they feel bored and unchallenged. But Wapnick explains that this is not a limitation or a disease. In fact she believes there are many benefits to being a multipotentialite. She refers to these as multipotentialite “super powers”. The first of these “powers” is Idea Synthesis. Wapnick defines this as combining two or more fields and creating something new. This superpower would be extremely beneficial to a scientist. If their hobby could be combined with their careers to create something new, it is beneficial to be a hobbyist. She believes that innovation comes from the intersection of two fields. So if a scientist is interested in two things, then innovation is to come. Rapid learning is the second superpower. Wapnick says that because they can transfer skills across disciplines multipotentialites are very efficient in creating and learning new things. Adaptability is the third power. Scanners are capable to adapting to many different situations and take on various roles, all important when becoming a successful scientist. In fact, Wapnick says that adaptability is the #1 skill necessary to succeed in the 21st century. When you combine these three special abilities of a multipotentialite you end up with the formula for a successful researcher and creator. Emily Wapnick, herself a multipotentialite, believes that her special characteristics make her especially adept at innovation, Something that is necessary to become a successful scientist.

Hobbyists That Are Scientists

Many scientists have extracurricular hobbies that benefit their research. But what about people who have science as a hobby? People who have placed science as a side interest to their daily careers. There are several examples of people who research as a hobby and are not professionals in the field of science. But does this make their contributions any less important? Probably not. This article speaks about hobbyists who are assisting in the fight against a phenomenon known as Sea Star Wasting Syndrome. This syndrome causes sea stars to lose limbs, have lesions, and wash up on shore dead. It is the largest die off of sea stars ever recorded. This condition was not even first recorded by a researcher. Instead, Laura James, a diver and underwater videographer in Seattle first noticed the mass amounts of sea stars dying on shore. Once she reported the phenomenon to researchers, UC Santa Cruz began to partner with citizen hobbyists to produce a map called the Sea Star Wasting Map. This map tracks the death of sea stars as reported by citizens who report the data. This citizen powered science will hopefully produce a map that can help identify any contributions that may be causing this massive die off.

Many hobbyists are also joining a movement from their garage-based labs that this article talks about. These hobbyists are harnessing biotechnology to create new products. Things as simple as using squid cells to create tattoos that can glow. These garage scientists also are attempting to create new vaccines for rare diseases and are creating a “playground for genetic code”. This movement is being compared to that of the creation of the computes. Like Steve Jobs creating the first mac in his garage, many amateur biotechnologists are working in their own garages toward innovation.

How a Hobbyist Created  a Tool Used By Scientists Across the World

Scientists use color to identify all sorts of things, from rocks on Mars to plant species on earth. The color difference between two species can be very subtle, so being able to differentiate between similar shades of a color is key for these kinds of identifications.

This Washington Post article shows how hobbyist Robert Ridgway created an incredibly thorough color dictionary, which contains examples of hundreds of colors in all sorts of shades and provides names for them.

Ridgway was a Smithsonian curator who worked specifically with birds, and he created a color dictionary in order to allow people all over the world to discuss birds (or other animals, or plants, or rocks) and know that when they referenced a particular color, they were talking about the same shade. This sort of tool is incredibly important, because it allows scientific discussions to be clear and straightforward--and it all came from a man who studied birds.

In fact, Curiosity has something called a color calibration target, which is actually somewhat similar to a color dictionary, if much simpler.

The six colored rectangles are meant to provide a reference, to help scientists determine what color samples from the surface of Mars would appear as on earth.
Passion Inspires Passion

It makes sense that a person's hobby would usually be something that person is passionate about--after all, why would anyone devote their free time to something they don't care for?

High school teacher Liam McGranaghan is very passionate about the environment and the outdoors, and he brings that passion into the classroom each day. He teaches environmental science and often has class outside; his passion for the subject he teaches inspires his students to become passionate about it as well, creating a new generation of excited scientists who want to learn about the world. In fact, McGranaghan's teaching inspired one of his students to pursue a degree in wildlife management--a clear example of how one scientist's passion for his hobby can be passed down to others.

Discoveries Fueled By Hobbies

What does the holy trinity from Christianity have to do with Ouroboros? One is a key concept from a widely practiced religion, one is an ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail. But both helped guide a scientist in the right direction to make an incredible discovery.

According to Johnson, Johannes Kepler "credited his laws of planetary motion to a generative metaphor imported from religion; he imagined the sun, stars, and the dark space between them as the celestial equivalents of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” (159-160). A much better understanding of our solar system came about in part because Kepler was Christian; his knowledge of Christianity helped push his mind in the right direction.

Johnson details a similar discovery made by German scientist Friedrich Kekulé, who discovered the structure of the chemical compound benzene, a molecule made up of a ring of six carbon, each attached to a hydrogen atom.

His discovery of the above structure was inspired by a vision of a snake eating its tail, forming a ring. Kekulé's knowledge of Ouroboros enabled him to discover the proper structure of benzene.
Keep Learning

Another benefit of having hobbies is that simply learning something new keeps your brain active, which can be incredibly beneficial to your neurons. This article from New Scientist  explains how the myelin sheath (which provides insulation to the neuron's axon, the part of the neuron where signals travel from one end to the other) can degrade over time if not kept active enough. It used to be thought that the synapses between brain cells was the most important part of brain activity, but this article suggests that activity that occurs within the cell itself is just as important.

The end of the article restates the importance of continuing to learn, just because of how beneficial it is.
So embrace a new hobby. And then another. It should help keep the electricity flowing a little better, a little longer. -Burrell, page 6


As the examples in this anthology demonstrate, having a hobby of some sort is incredibly beneficial to scientists; it doesn't matter if the hobby is something else in the field of science, or maybe something athletic or related to the arts. Expanding your knowledge and skill set only increases the likelihood that you'll be able to achieve success, create something amazing, learn how to overcome obstacles. Johnson explains the benefits of hobbies very well in his book.

“It is not so much a question of thinking outside the box, as it is allowing the mind to move through multiple boxes. That movement from box to box forces the ind to approach intellectual roadblocks from new angles, or to borrow tools from one discipline to solve problems in another.” -Johnson, pg. 173

Having hobbies can help provide a scientist with different perspectives on the world, or even their field of study. People like Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein were successful because they learned as much as they could, and applied it to their work.
Scientific Anthology: How Hobbies Affect Scientific Exploration

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