The Best Parts of Science

(Again from the archives)

After having written about the worst, why not write about the best things about science? Here goes:

1 - Discovery. One of the greatest feelings I've ever had as a researcher was peering down at the microscope and seeing something that I know has never been seen in the history of mankind. It's funny, the first thing you want to do is ... tell somebody. When my thesis advisor discovered that cells have different types of microtubules (a truly unexpected finding) it was the middle of the night. Apparently, he rushed off to explain the big discovery to the only other person in the floor at that time, a janitor. Science literally means standing at the edge of knowledge ... and looking beyond. What a thrill.

2 - Discussion. One great part of Science is that scientists love talking about ideas. I never tire of speaking to fellow scientists - we are a very curious group. It reminds me of this quote I once heard (I'm not sure of the source):

"People of high intelligence talk about ideas...
People of average intelligence talk about things...
People of no intelligence talk about other people!"

Although in my opinion I would substitute "intelligence" with "curiosity". There is a bias that scientists are a very reclusive and unsociable group. I would strongly disagree. We are constantly discussing and exchanging ideas - and the freedom to explore, invent and analyze ideas within the scientific forum is unlike anything else I've ever experienced. Due in part to this type of social interaction, I believe that scientists are trained to be very clear and CAREFUL thinkers. But more importantly, a good scientist makes careful assumptions. This is the difference between Darwin and say Freud ... or Marx. Many non-scientists have this strange habit of not checking their assumptions. In the course of analyzing the world around them, this type of error magnifies itself and leads these individuals to strange and often erroneous interpretations of phenomena. As a scientist I often question non-scientists' assumptions and sometimes find that they confuse this line of inquiry as an attack on their ego (although many scientists also fall into this category - see "worst things about science", item #8). So as a summary I would say that good scientists love discussion and are non-judgmental in what they discuss (as long as the discussion is about ideas!), but scientists are judgmental in how they discuss ideas. This is where many non-scientists could learn from scientists.

3 - Creativity. Good scientists are very creative. Think of it, you are at the cutting edge of knowledge, you read the scientific literature, there is a problem you would like to address, and then you ask (hopefully) a very insightful question, and come up with a model of how nature works. What to do next? Well you want to test your model ... usually by performing experiments, while covering all your bases (i.e. with appropriate controls). But of course you can't perform the "perfect experiment", because you are limited by the current technology. What to do? Most scientist use the latest techniques ... but the best scientists modify these techniques slightly to perform innovative experiments that are closer to the "dream experiment".

If you've managed to invent a really good technique that is capable of addressing a particular type of question, this is referred to as an assay. Working out the bugs of an assay is hard and can take a long time, but once the assay is up and running, you can collect tons of data in very short time spans. In addition, you've become the world's expert at this novel technique. Great scientists always come up with innovative assays, and then use the assay to gain new insights into old problems. Even better than that is to use an assay to address problems that people haven't even begun to think about. I love this part of science - call it MacGuyverism.

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Hee hee, that quote about high/average/no intelligence is great. It would describe the state of blogs too. Is it allright to quote you in my blog? Then you can claim precedence for the idea.

...seeing something that I know has never been seen in the history of mankind. It's funny, the first thing you want to do is ... tell somebody

The late physicist Viktor Weisskopf loved to tell the story of his old friend Hans Bethe, who was the first to figure out the fusion cycle in our sun:

"Imagine, you're a post-doc physics instructor, and you check your calculations and realize this must be right. And that night you take your girlfriend out, and you explain to her that you're the only one in the world who really knows what makes the stars shine. Isn't that remarkable..?"

[Long pause while the audience soaks in the wonder of it all]

"Yes, imagine that: to be a post-doc and actually have a girlfriend!"

By Monte Davis (not verified) on 04 Sep 2006 #permalink

Hee hee, that quote about high/average/no intelligence is great. It would describe the state of blogs too. Is it allright to quote you in my blog? Then you can claim precedence for the idea.

Yes please go ahead and use it. I must say that I did not come up with it as I've heard this quote from others - I'm not sure of its origin but if someone does, let me know.

People of high intelligence talk about ideas...
People of average intelligence talk about things...
People of no intelligence talk about other people!"

Ironic that the person who came up with this was talking about other people...

By somnilista, FCD (not verified) on 04 Sep 2006 #permalink

Hmm, when I read that line about people of no intelligence, I thought, where does that put psychiatrists? And then, you pick out Freud as an example of a non-scientist. Holy schmokes, the guy pretty much invented psychotherapy, a tool the descendents of which have helped untold millions of people deal with mental issues. He doesn't deserve to be specifically dissed! :)