Ilona Stengel
1,208,520 views • 10:41

I'm a scientist, and I'm a big fan of Star Trek, especially of Mr. Spock. Mr. Spock is a scientist as well, and at the same time, he's the first [officer] of the starship Enterprise, and during the adventures of the Enterprise crew, he and his colleagues are dealing a lot with the presence or absence of Mr. Spock's emotions. Mr. Spock is half-human and half-Vulcan, and Vulcans are an alien race who learn to control and suppress their feelings and to act purely out of logic. As Mr. Spock is only half-Vulcan, he sees himself constantly in conflict in between logic and emotions, and as he's part of a team, the whole crew is struggling with, is analyzing, and is making fun of this conflict. And also the fans of Star Trek watch with amusement this seemingly contradictory behavior. They find it quite fascinating. And the matter is a golden thread through the whole Star Trek series and movies from the '60s until today.

And that's actually what I want to talk about today: the role of emotions in science. We tend to think that science is all about facts and logic and human feelings are often neglected or considered an obstacle to get rid of. I would like to suggest that emotions are as important in science as they are in any other part of our lives. Science is made by humans, and as human beings, even if we try hard, we cannot get rid of our emotions. So instead of fighting them, I believe that even in science, we should make use of our feelings, because for breakthroughs and innovation, they are equally important as facts and logic.

I will come back to Mr. Spock, but first let me share my experience on the role of emotions in science, and one story in particular kept me thinking about it for the last couple of years. I'm working in research on organic light-emitting diodes, so-called OLEDs. This is how you might know them, as new generation of displays. OLEDs are more and more used in smartphone displays and TV screens. They make them appear bright, truly colorful and bendable. This is how they look like in the research lab of my physicist colleagues. And this is what I, as a chemist, have in mind when I think about them. I've loved it ever since I started to work on it.

So I didn't really like the news when the company I had been working for — that was my previous employer — announced that they wanted to stop OLED research. At the time, the management had reasons for this decision, and the company handled it very well, actually. Nobody lost their jobs, and everybody was rewarded for their performed work. What I want to show you today is what happened with my scientist colleagues and me during the time in between the announcement and the last working day on our project. Consider it a small case study on emotions in science.

In 2015, our research team had grown to more than 80 people, and even after the announcement that our project was discontinued, we could not stop working from one day to another. It took several months to bring all activities to a sound end and to find new jobs within the company for everyone. Here's what happened. Even though we knew that we were working on a project that was to be stopped, during those months our output hit the roof. We were actually working on two different OLED projects: first, the development of materials for blue-shining OLEDs, which had started in 2001; and second, materials for green OLEDs, which had started in 2014. And the results I show you here concern the green OLED project.

In the graph, you can see how the lifetime, which is a crucial measure for the durability of our devices, developed over time. In 2015, just half a year into the project, we were told to scale down, to stop working on the project as soon as possible and to start over in other jobs. Nevertheless, from this time on, our results continued to improve rapidly.

How did that happen? After the announcement, pretty quickly, colleagues started leaving the team, and soon, we were left in a small group, all pretty much sharing the same attitude of, "I'm going to be the last person leaving the ship." What I mean is, while the number of scientists working on the project was decreasing, the dedication of people remaining grew dramatically. And also, a new and more intense team spirit formed. We all shared the same passion for our work, we all were sad that it was about to end, and we all wanted to show that we could turn our ideas into reality. We felt that we belonged to something bigger. And furthermore, our project was less and less in the focus of the management, because they started to think about new projects, restructuring and so on. This resulted in additional freedom and the possibility to take a few things into our own hands. Of course, more freedom also means more responsibility, which we were happy to take, because we believed in our work. We felt empowered. And these three pillars — dedication, belonging and empowerment — worked together in a kind of self-reinforcing cycle, and the closer we got to shutdown, the better our output became. So we were working with such personal engagement on a project already sentenced to death because we felt connected to something meaningful. Of course, it was also a hard and sometimes frustrating time, but we were sitting together in the lab, or occasionally in the café, sharing our sadness about the end of our project as well as the joy in our work. So overall, we had a very intense and mesmerizingly exciting time. And the lifetime we finally obtained for our materials was on one level with already commercialized materials for green OLEDs at the time, and we achieved this within just one year. And those results helped our employer to sell the patents for real value.

Now, let me tell you the same story with different characters and a slightly different operation. The story is part of Star Trek. And sorry for those of you who haven't seen the movies, but I need to introduce a spoiler here. After Mr. Spock sacrificed himself to save the starship Enterprise at the end of Star Trek II, Captain Kirk and his core team were determined to hunt through the universe to search for Spock, even though they could see only very little chance in finding him alive. And Starfleet Command did not give them permission nor a starship to do so, so they took it very passionately into their own hands to travel out to find Spock. And after dealing with great challenges, they eventually found Spock, and he happily and gratefully joined the team again. He could feel the dedication and the connection of his team towards their project, which was to save him and to hold the crew together. And over the years, over the episodes of the saga, Mr. Spock came to realize that the combination of both logic and emotions is crucial for facing challenges and exploring new worlds, and there was no contradiction anymore.

So the storyline here for both our OLED story and Star Trek is actually the basic setting for a lot of breakthrough stories, in and out of science. The main characters are all part of a great team. All team members show a huge dedication towards reaching their goal. They strive to seize all the freedom they can get, and they take the responsibility they need to take.

During the time our OLED project was nearing the end, I received one piece of advice several times. "Don't take it to your heart. You can work on something else." If I had followed it, it would have saved me several depressed evenings and many tears, but at the same time, I would have failed to gain a great deal in personal development and happiness. And as the same is true for my colleagues and our whole project, we would have achieved far less.

So of course, science should be based on facts and logic. When I say we should use our emotions in science, I do not suggest we should use feelings instead of facts. But I say we should not be afraid of using our feelings to implement and to catalyze fact-based science and innovation. Emotions and logic do not oppose each other. They complement each other, and they reinforce each other.

The feeling of being dedicated to something meaningful, of belonging to something bigger and of being empowered is crucial for creativity and innovation. Whatever you are working on, make sure that it matters, and take it to your heart as much as you like.

Thank you.

(Applause)