“That’s funny…”January 4, 2011
“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!,” but “That’s funny…” – Isaac Asimov.
I’m currently reading “13 Things That Don’t Make Sense” by Michael Brooks. While in search of some airplane reading I came across this and immediately decided I would like it based on the above quote, which opened the book.
The philosophy behind the book is encapsulated in that quote, and elaborated on well in the prologue – The history of science is filled with instances of spectacularly clever people having absolutely no idea what to make of a problem, and being utterly unable to agree on a solution. This state of confusion and bitter, bitter argument amongst experts precedes what Thomas Kuhn described as a “paradigm shift,” which occurs when someone ever more spectacularly clever comes up with a solution that shifts the way science understands the world utterly.
The wonderful nature of a problem you can’t solve is something many people, both scientists and non-scientists, [Tangent: Using the phrase “lay people” in this context is something I’ve seen a lot. That seems a little “priests and their flock” to me, and I’m not entirely comfortable with that construction.] forget or ignore. In the context of the scientific/academic culture, there is a strong resistance to being wrong (and admitting it.) That in itself is far from unique to scientists, but the scientific culture supports this strongly because of the positive results bias in publishing, and because of the nature of funding. There are many incentives to protect a theory you have championed against all attacks. (Not least one’s own personal ego – more than any of the other factors, the wider culture has trained us all to try very hard not to be wrong.) Also, the media is quick to pounce on examples of scientists being “wrong” and often these articles are used to promote, implicitly or explicitly, the idea that we should not fully trust science as a method for attaining knowledge.
But the puzzle, the mystery, the unexpected question… I love it. One of my favourite moments in my own academic history (short as it is at this point) was the first instance where my research threw up a result that was exactly backwards from what I had predicted. There was fear, there was panic, and there was creative cursing that would have given Spider Jerusalem a run for his money. And then there settled upon me an entirely different emotion. A mixture of excitement and calm. Adrenaline and Purpose. And it was fantastic.
After all, isn’t that why science captured my imagination in the first place? I wanted to answer questions about how the world works. How boring would science be if it all fell the way theory expected? If it did, every scientist would move quickly from bored to unemployed. It’s when the questions come up that you really get to be a scientist, trying to explain what you have seen and figuring out how to follow up on those questions and answer them.
Suffice to say, I’m really enjoying the book at the moment, it’s celebration of the unexpected questions and the mysteries that still remain. Because mysteries are fascinating on a primal level. The goal might be complete knowledge, but the motivation? It’s the chase. It’s the thrill of unearthing the unknown. It’s the fantastic feeling that you are working to discover and understand things that no-one has yet.
And it’s a pretty good feeling to start 2011 with. Here’s to a year of getting it wrong, the unexpected questions that throws up, and the thrill of trying to find the missing pieces of the jigsaw you didn’t know you were missing.