The Goldilocks level of abstraction in science

Science is full of abstractions. A line plot is an abstraction. A false-colour image is an abstraction. Even scientific notation like 6.0 × 1023 is an abstraction. Abstractions like these are central to science, invoked all the time, and easy to understand. Other abstractions are far from simple and may cause more confusion than clarity.

Abstraction is a slippery slope. Things can quickly get out of hand. Let’s start with a simple abstraction like velocity. The units, metres per second or kilometres per hour, tell us what it is: how fast something moves. I imagine most scientists would still be comfortable if I increase the level of abstraction by calculating the acceleration (i.e., moving from m s−1 to m s−2). But what if I had instead starting talking about a quantity in m2 s−1, not m s−2? Diffusivity and viscosity are such quantities; they measure how quickly something spreads. All I did was change m s−1 to m2 s−1 and I’ve taken a concept a kid can understand to something that may trip up an undergraduate physicist.

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True scientific news doesn’t make the news

Journalism and science have very different time scales. A week-old newspaper is barely worth reading. A week-old scientific paper is still warm from the photocopier. Journalism neglects this discrepancy and pressures science to hurry up. Numerous headlines with the eye-roll-inducing opening “A new study shows” imply that only the newest (or weirdest) science is worthy of attention. Google declares about 2000 times as many results for that phrase compared to “an old study shows”.

To make sense of the differences between science and its representation in the media, it first helps to figure out what does and doesn’t make news, and what does and doesn’t get widely shared or discussed. With that established, we’re better positioned to overcome the challenges of communicating all scientific research, not just the sexy aspects that make good headlines.

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Ready, fire, aim: the myth of the scientific method

Scientific literature is like social media: its content disproportionately comprises successes and achievements. Just as social media seldom features mundane necessities like trips to the supermarket, scientific papers seldom feature abandoned experiments or fruitless pursuits. In fact, we generally work backwards from the results and conclusions when writing these papers. We start with the answer and present only the relevant methods. To a non-scientist, this may sound dishonest and deceptive, but it’s not. Its for the reader’s benefit: a linear narrative is much easier to follow than the actual story with its many tangents, setbacks, and realisations.

Anyone exposed to the process of scientific research quickly learns that it seldom follows the so-called scientific method, those dispassionate experiments meant to objectively test hypotheses. Science is better described as Ready, Fire, Aim. Yes, in that order. This phrase, borrowed from Neil Gershenfeld, concisely captures how science is an iterative procedure without a specific target. Put in some groundwork to figure out the general direction (Ready), but take what might otherwise be a shot in the dark (Fire), then spend time making sense of what you hit (Aim). You may well fail and hit nothing, but as Gershenfeld elaborates, you can’t hit anything unexpected by aiming first.

If the result confirms the hypothesis, then you’ve made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you’ve made a discovery – Enrico Fermi

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Pure scientific research pays for itself

Pure scientific research is economically viable because it has a fat tail. Science is expensive, but sporadic breakthroughs lead to economic benefits that more than cover the bill for the other studies. If you could buy stock in Pure Scientific Research, it would be a worthwhile investment, with estimated returns on investment of 20–60%. The catch? You have to share your returns with everyone else. They aren’t appropriable as an economist would say.

The importance of pure scientific research to the vast majority of modern life cannot be understated. But this importance is hidden. The tech, pharma, and auto companies that we buy products from undertake their own research and development, but it exists upon a base of fundamental science discovered within university walls. This link between pure research and modern day technology would be more obvious if, as Bruce Parker suggests, there were “Science made this possible” signs on every appliance, drug, car, computer, game machine, and other necessities of life. And let’s not forget that the Internet grew out of a technology physicists developed to help communicate with each other.

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What does scientific genius look like in the 21st century?

The names we typically associate with scientific genius are from several centuries or millennia ago. Think Newton, Einstein, Archimedes, Galileo, or Darwin. Even famed scientists that are modern by comparison (Richard Feynman, Francis Crick, or Linus Pauling) made discoveries many decades ago. Just as any sports fan will tell you it is pointless to compare athletes from different eras, the same is true, if not more so, for scientists. Whereas athletes are largely playing the same game as they were decades ago, science has changed. We aim to always answer new questions, address ever more complex and interdisciplinary issues, and occasionally develop experiments costing billions of dollars. How, then, does scientific genius manifest in the 21st century? Which circumstances are most conducive to developing scientific genius? And what traits does a genius in the modern scientific realm exhibit?

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