Woman lying on the beach

The State of Hmm

Hey, good to have you back.

I hope you enjoyed your summer. I hope you played like a child. Read a book you don’t dare showcase in your cabinet. Visited new places, wandered around familiar places and discovered something new. I hope from time to time you thought the deepest of scientific thoughts:

If you’re anything like me, your vacation started with the thought: I can’t go. Not now. There’s too much work to be done. But let’s face it, there’s always more work to do. As I grow older I’m getting slightly better in casting off these thoughts, because I realized I am actually saying: If I go, things will go horribly wrong. I’m just that important. And doesn’t that carry a teeny bit of grandiosity in it?

So I decided to go. But there was one more holiday hurdle to overcome: packing the suitcase. Could it contain merely vacation gear (sunscreen, sundress, sunglasses, and Fruittella or some other nostalgic summer sweets)? Or should I maybe slip in my laptop to be able to work on my review? Catch up on some literature? This is a struggle I have not always won. But this year I remembered my Latin: vacare! Be empty! If a vacation was meant to be filled with purposeful activities, then why would it be called vacation?

So I hopped on a plane. But although my body was soon someplace else, alas, my mind was not. Apparently, my mind still travels at medieval speed. It took at least a week to transition from my usual solution-mode to the State of Hmm. You know, the state where you start to ask yourself the really important questions like: Do you get an extra extension for the NWO application periods if you name your children Veni, Vidi and Vici? Or a bit later on (staring at a schnitzel topped with mushrooms and peppers): Hmm, why don’t we have schnitzas instead of pizzas?

I don’t expect Groningen to start with the world’s first Schnitzeria anytime soon, but sometimes these summer Hmms turn out to be truly groundbreaking.

Take, for instance, George De Mestral. On one of his hiking trips in the Alpes, George walked through some bushes and noticed how the burrs clung to his pants and his dog’s fur. He then had the deepest of scientific thoughts: Hmm. Back home he took out his microscope, and then tried to mimic the hooks of the burrs and the loops of his pants’ fabric. This led to an intelligent new design, which we now know as Velcro (klittenband). Or what about Alexander Fleming, who decided -very bravely- to take an August vacation? When he came back in September he discovered a mould on a Petri dish with staphylococcus bacteria he accidentally left open. He then had the deepest of scientific thoughts: Hmm. Alexander had just invented Penicillin, one of our most potent antibiotics.

So, there you have it. The ultimate reason for taking an August vacation is Hmm. And don’t worry if your Hmm-s haven’t led to any brilliant discoveries just yet. You never know what the future holds in store.

This column was written for the newsletter of the Research School of Behavioural and Cognitive Neurosciences

Picture: Courtesy by Sander Martens