Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The best things about science

After having written about the worst (parts I and II), 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 thinkers and very 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.

OK that's enough for today, but as usual other suggestions are welcome.