Illustration by Angelika Manhart
I knew I wanted to be a scientist when…

Sleepless in Shanghai

By Andrea Jones-Rooy

I knew I wanted to be a scientist one month before I quit my job as a scientist.

It was November 6, 2015. I spent that night sitting on the floor of my NYU Shanghai-furnished apartment. It was near the end of the fall semester of my third year as a tenure-track professor of political science, and I was preparing to teach an online course the next term on a topic called “Complexity.”

Generic furniture was all around me, yet I huddled by the coffee table, poring over my laptop and a stack of texts. At the time I would have told you the floor was more comfortable. Looking back, I think it was a tiny form of rebellion.

I spent much of that fall semester sitting on the floor. Fall doesn’t come to Shanghai like it does to the US: the leaves don’t turn, the air doesn’t crisp. Pumpkin spice isn’t a thing. Rather than invigorate, the autumn of Shanghai dissolves. It becomes an only slightly colder winter, heavy with pollution. Skies become gray, but not with snow.

I didn’t notice the skies darken as I wrote lesson plans about Maxwell’s Demon and reread Herbert Simon’s gorgeous prose about society as an artificial construct. But I did notice that when it came time to put those friends away and go to sleep in my sterile white bed, I could not. I stared at my white walls, adorned with black and white photos of flowers that sucked out more life than they offered.

I am a trained political scientist, but complexity – an interdisciplinary field made up of scholars from fields as seemingly unrelated as physics, biology, economics, and sociology – is what makes my heart beat faster. Complexity is the study of complex systems. A traffic jam is a complex system, as is a flock of birds, a group of protesting youth, a city, and an immune system.

All of these are systems of “agents” who interact with each other. Their interactions can give rise to unexpected, often unpredictable outcomes. A bunch of drivers interacting can lead to congested but flowing highways, or it can lead to the 2015 10-day backup across route 110 in Beijing. An angry group of unemployed young people can lead to Occupy Wall Street, or it can become the Arab Spring. The stock market can surge, or we can see the 2008 financial crisis. We live a long life or we get multiple sclerosis. We understand a lot of the components, but we can’t figure out how we get to those big, messy, important, emergent outcomes. Complexity!

To me, complexity has always represented the future of science and of human understanding of the universe and our place in it. It had what I felt political science lacked: an appreciation for the interaction of parts and the unpredictability inherent in life. Complexity also rejects reductionism – the idea that we can understand the whole if we can understand all its parts.

I had become a political scientist because I didn’t know what else to do. I studied international relations in college because it was the sexy major of my era and it aligned enough with my ill-formed illusion for my adulthood, which consisted of fantasies of myself, smartly dressed, marching through international airport terminals on my way somewhere important. Would I be a diplomat? A movie star? Some kind of expert? I didn’t know, and I didn’t know how to find out.

My job as a professor at NYU Shanghai was an unusual one. NYU Shanghai was a brand-new university and I was their first ever political science hire, which meant no one there knew what political science was. I found myself constantly having to defend my field, insisting we approach political problems using scientific methods that are as principled and rigorous as those of physics and chemistry. I taught international relations and comparative politics. My students were quick learners and I enjoyed watching them become enthusiastic about a field I cared about.

But when I was finally allowed to teach a course of my own design, I chose complexity. For the first time in my life I prepared rigorously for the course long before the semester was starting. It was an online course, so I spent my evenings reading and writing slides and my days locked in a windowless video room teaching to no one but two video cameras who stared indifferently back at me.

I loved being in that little room. I loved exploring complexity and revisiting the authors I’d read in graduate school who didn’t know it but had convinced me to not drop out of my Ph.D. program. I’d spent one glorious year as a Ph.D. student working through the complex systems curriculum at the University of Michigan, but was persuaded to drop it in order to defend my dissertation in my actual field.

The scholars and writers who focus on complexity are a brave bunch. They eschewed traditional disciplines and rules about how you’re supposed to study science (one piece at a time). They made bold, sweeping statements, like their claim that a simple computer program called the Game of Life could represent intelligence and human consciousness. They attempted to link the cosmos to little events between humans on earth. They were about nothing short of life, death, and the miracle of existence.

This was a far cry from the small inquiries of political science, which, while pretending to have lofty goals like understanding war and peace and democracy, in practice tended to look more like tiny chipping away at questions whose answers already seemed obvious. Does violent language in campaign ads make people more aggressive? (Yes.) Are female candidates for office more often called by their first names than male candidates? (Double yes.)

Don’t get me wrong, political science questions are worthy ones, and I’m glad there are people out there answering them. But they were not questions that kept me up at night, nor were they questions I felt like I was good at asking, much less answering.

Here’s what was keeping me up at night: the logistic map (a gorgeous map of deterministic chaos that represents how we are all unable to predict anything) and a growing suspicion I was living my life the wrong way. For months leading up to this fall semester where I taught complexity in solitude, I’d come to have intense insomnia, the likes of which I’d never before experienced.

It was almost time for my third year review as a professor. If I passed that, I’d have one more step to go before I earned the holy grail in the life of any professor: tenure. But I was increasingly aware I did not want to be a political scientist.

So why not switch to being a professor of complexity? For one, such jobs don’t really exist. For another, I also increasingly admitted I didn’t want to be a professor, either. I had talked myself into liking teaching, but never loved it. I was good at writing, but never had a mind for research. I didn’t have an instinct for turning big questions into testable hypotheses. I couldn’t seem to pull one apple from the tree of inquiry without dragging down the whole tree.

I loved my months of solitude, alone with my old friends from complex systems. But I was also becoming isolated and depressed. During sleepless nights I’d think about the renegade scholars I most admired who were all in complexity. I tried to talk myself into keeping my job in order to do more complexity.

But the truth is I was bored with my life. I didn’t see scholars ahead of me in my career who I wanted to be – not even the most distinguished of my beloved complexity authors. I had also spent my entire adult life pursuing side jobs and activities to keep my interest in life alive – weird stuff, like fire eating and standup comedy. I was tired of my unsatisfying balancing act of being deadened by my career, distracted by my hobbies, and not particularly good at either. I wanted to go all in on something. I wanted to go all in on me.

On December 5, 2015, the second-to-last day of the term, I spoke with our provost about how I was for sure going to commit to my job as a professor, and we talked about the book I would write so I’d get tenure. I left and felt calm and relieved.

But that night I was awake all night again. I read part of a self-help book that described how often people make choices that seem rational in the short term – like taking a job with good money and lots of respect – but then wake up one day later in life realizing they never lived the way they wanted to. It was not the first time I’d read a passage like that. I somehow kept finding them in books everywhere.

I laid there in my nice NYU Shanghai-furnished apartment. I thought about how I never wanted to be a professor. I wondered what else I could do instead. I didn’t know.

The next day, I was on a plane back to New York City. I watched a few episodes of a television show called Fargo, where people with decent jobs are depressed. OK, some other gruesome stuff happens, too, but that was the part that haunted me.

I decided somewhere over the Pacific that it was time to face my fears.

The moment we landed I quit my job.

I still taught “Complexity” online in the spring 2016 semester. I learned that I still love complexity and that I am, indeed, not meant to be a professor.

I don’t know what the world outside the academy holds for someone who loves complexity – there’s barely room for us inside the ivory tower. But like any good scientist, I know there is only one way to find out.

Test it.


Formerly an assistant professor of political science at NYU Shanghai, Andrea Jones-Rooy is now a quantitative researcher at FiveThirtyEight, contributing writer for Parallax, and director of the Moss Institute for Social Science and Complexity. She’s also an internationally touring circus performer and standup comedian.