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Spare a Thought for the Scientist


An assertion that is often made by the more scientifically inclined is that it’s a great shame that the vast majority of people don’t know or apply basic scientific principles to their everyday life. Not in an over complicated sense, but rather to help overcome simple tasks, to aid getting to grips with new and possibly complex concepts, or figuring out how to work some newfangled piece of technology.

Let me illustrate this point by way of a story. A friend of mine (this is completely true) once lived with a physicist, and couldn’t relate to his way of thinking at all. One day when their toilet broke my friends natural response was to simply call in the plumber. When he returned from work to make the call however, he found to his dismay that his scientist house mate had disassembled the toilet. Parts were strewn everywhere, and the physicist was looking rather pleased with himself. ‘Have you managed to fix it then?’ my friend asked. ‘No.’ The physicist replied, ‘but I’ve worked out what the problem was, and have ordered a new part. Should arrive tomorrow.’ My friend stood aghast, transfixed at what he found to be a different breed of person.

As the Philosopher of science Karl Popper remarked ‘Science may be described as the art of systematic over-simplification’, and it is with this in mind that scientists can cut through the extraneous details and get to the heart of a concept rapidly, laying the foundation for a solid understanding in any undertaking. Discover what is known, and what isn’t known, and how ignorance can attempt to be overcome. It is this systematic framework that has eradicated small pox, extended life expectancy, put man on the Moon and an iPhone in his pocket.

One of the virtues that emerges from scientific training, which amounts to years spent in learning and research, is a way of thinking that is lauded by those that have it. Decried as more important even than the knowledge it imparts, the scientific perspective that moulds its practitioners changes the way they see the world. But is it really so hard to achieve?

At its most basic level, science demands scepticism in its users. This is not, however, to be confused with cynicism. Optimism is critical to overcome the countless intellectual brick walls that researchers in scientific disciplines come up against. Without a doubt, it is doubtitself which is crucial to begin to understand what is going on in nature. Starting with a blank slate, and incrementally building from the bottom up a simplistic picture of reality one begins to form a working model to learn from. It may be slow, but if the price for progressing more quickly is not being sure of what you know such action is surely rendered pointless.

Experts that arise from persistent exploration of their chosen field, and continued high impact research, are not to be confused with authority figures. The only thing that carries weight in science is the data and the evidence. If some unheard of and unpublished slack-jawed researcher generates findings contrary to the accepted theories of the day, then it is the theory that needs to be modified or dispensed with. Whatever experts were saying is trumped, and immediately outdated.

Indeed, the Physicist Richard Feynman surmised that ‘science is the belief in the ignorance of experts’. In other words take nothing for granted, there are no sacred cows, no areas one shouldn’t question or attempt to overturn the accepted thinking on. Professors, being the old and accomplished hands in their subjects, are still of course better placed to interpret the revelation to a deeper level. And more often than not would be happy to do so, for there are no hard feelings about being proved wrong. The cosmologist Lawrence Krauss has even gone as far as to state that the best place one can be in science is wrong, because once something is known to be wrong this offers up an opportunity to learn.

So there we have the scientific mindset: scepticism, doubt, curiosity and an acceptance of an underlying order in the universe. All of this seems obvious. Humans naturally seek out order to make sense of their surroundings, so how can science claim these universal traits as its own? While such an acquisition is true, the propensity to which a trained scientist confirms to such a way of thinking in rigid terms is perhaps what sets them apart from the non-scientist. Consequently it is the ardency with which they approach the world that can lead them to be irked with their non-scientific contemporaries.

The vice of the scientific outlook, as perceived in general, is that its practitioners can come across as cold, seeing the world as a collection of parts which can be broken down and understood. With Nobel prize winning Theoretical Physicist Paul Dirac making statements such as ‘In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in the case of poetry, it’s the exact opposite!’ it is little wonder such resentment can build up.

But rather than strip nature of its resounding beauty, deeper levels of understanding only serves to open up new dimensions to the world which can all be appropriated concordantly. No one would ever make the claim that Professors of Music can no longer listen to and enjoy a symphony, or that their analytical knowledge and academic understanding of music gets in the way of their enjoyment of it. Rather we are left to envy them, as they can enjoy aspects of it we aren’t even privy to.

A key difference between the Professor of Music and the Scientist is that the scientific method is infinitely easier to grasp and employ. So next time you can’t work the printer, the TV won’t tune in properly, or you need to make a course correction for your satellite to successfully slingshot around an upcoming planet while still maintaining the correct trajectory to reach its desired destination, take a cool breath, try and get to the root of the problem, and assume there is an underlying logic at play which can be reasoned out into the open.