To do science

What does it mean to do science? I have a few suggestions that I want to put out there but the first we need to decide what science itself is. The first thing most people think about when they think of science is “what scientists do.” They might say that science is what people in white coats do in the laboratory. If you study science, that is certainly what you will learn but we also know that what physicists do in a lab and what biologists do in a lab are quite different. What do they both do that is the same? Science is not about specific subjects; it’s a way of thinking. All scientists try to think logically, to ask questions and following them up with experiments or observations that will give them the evidence needed to answer their questions.

The interesting point here is that science is not limited to white coats and laboratories but is a mindset that anyone can, and often does, use. For example, let’s say you have a bedside lamp and when you push the switch it doesn’t turn on. You ask yourself, “Why won’t the light turn on?” You could come up with a few ideas, such as the power is out, the bulb has blown, the wire has been cut etc. Now, you have a number of hypotheses and can start conducting experiments to test them. First you check that the lamp is plugged in, the cord is intact and the other electrical appliances are working. That’s your first bit of evidence and you can eliminate some of your hypotheses. Next you might replace the bulb and find that now the light does turn on.

That evidence supports your hypothesis that the bulb was broken. It doesn’t prove that the bulb was actually the problem, there could be other explanations; the bulb works but wasn’t properly inserted or there was a loose wire in the fitting. In that case just the action of changing the bulb might have restored the connection. To confirm that the bulb really doesn’t work you would probably want to try it in another lamp. Most people don’t think of that thought process as science but it’s the same steps that a scientist would do to address their own questions and it works in biology, physics and for lightbulbs.

While you obviously learn a lot of facts in university about whatever topic you are studying, the really important part is the methods and the thinking behind how that information was acquired. As our knowledge grows we will find that some things we knew were wrong and many techniques will be replaced by newer, better techniques. However, the way of thinking that forms the heart of science and why it is so successful will remain.This seems to be recognised to a point. I remember during my undergraduate years that there were many talks where we were told that science graduates were in big demand because you could do so many things or the government would say they needed maths and science graduates. There seemed to recognition that you weren’t just learning how to do a specific thing but that you were learning the skills to find the answers to any questions.

It saddens me, then, that I see scientific positions advertised that emphasise the need to have experience in very narrow and specific fields or techniques. If one is going into the sciences one has to constantly be learning new techniques and trying to keep up with the field. When looking for a new scientist, the emphasis should be on finding someone who can do research and adapt to the changing methods. One of the appealing points when I went to the admissions workshop at OISTwas that students spend time in a completely different discipline as part of their training in order to get a broader scientific background.

Science: A History

The motivation for this post came to me when I had finished reading John Gribbin’s Science: A History. The book recounts almost 500 years of scientific history with a focus on some of the major scientists, including their biographies. What I realised when reading it, was that many people that have advanced scientific thought were not necessarily full-time scientists and some hadn’t even formally studied science.

For example, Michael Faraday was almost entirely self-taught. With no experience in science and no formal degree, how likely would he be to get a position today? Yet he made major discoveries in electromagnetics and electrochemistry. Granted, the way science was done 100, 200 or 400 years ago was very different to today but it does make one wonder how many people who could make a contribution are being overlooked just because they didn’t have the right opportunities to study or gain experience.

To come back to the original question, doing science is about using the scientific method. It’s about asking questions, challenging assumptions, doing experiments and looking for evidence. Those principles are at the heart of all scientific endeavours but those same tools apply to everyday life. When it comes to education, those skills are the most important part. The actual body of facts is useful but memorising all of that information is pointless without the tools to make use of it and, as long as one has those tools, the information can always be rediscovered.

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