Monday, June 25, 2012

The Greatest Tool

One thing we are asked to do as scientists, and rightly so, is to explain what it is we are doing. And explain it in a number of different ways depending on the audience, be it another scientist working in the same or a different field of study, or a politician someone in authority who is perhaps in charge of the funding for your work. Or, what I find most interesting and the most rewarding,  explaining it to everyone else, those who want to learn but are unable to burden themselves with the painstaking task of investigating it on their own (and don’t worry this includes myself most of the time).

The thing I always find through these explanations is that I am able to give myself a deeper and more thorough understanding of what it is I am doing, and in doing so open up other questions that need to be answered. As is often the way in the process of answering one question we are posed with new ones, and it is through this process of enquiry that we have formed the world around us today.
      I recently asked my father and sister, both of whom are historians, what do you think this era will be named, will it be Elizabethan once again, or have we passed the point of naming periods of time according to monastic rule?

I think that we will look back at this time as being the age of information, where everything we know around us is the product of advancements in science and information that is within people’s lifetimes. The age of science where we moved from knowing very little about the world around us, to knowing a great deal more than any individual could possible process.

Our lives are romanticised by philosophy; why are we here, what is our purpose, are we alone in the universe? These are all questions that may get brushed aside by scientists, and yet if you break down what it is that we are actually doing, what it is that we are investigating with scientific rigour these sorts of questions form the foundations of our pursuits.

Science is a tool, perhaps the best tool we will ever have, to answer these questions. It breaks things down into their most fundamental and builds them back up again. Theorists generate simulations, built on simulations, built on simulations, each time increasing the complexity and conforming to the physical principles we know; while experimentalists and observers interpret what we can see and physically show to be around us. It is the combination of these two techniques in a trial and error loop that are continuously improving our understanding of not only the universe around us, but ourselves too.
Science is not dictated by politics or individuals, sure they may have an impact on the topic of investigation, but what I am referring to is scientific laws, truth, and evidence, not only looking for answers but questions as well. The beauty of it all is that it is also not infallible, truths we know about the world around us are built on understanding, and they are extrapolations of what we see or can show to be true. It is therefore logical to assume that with more understanding, brought about by asking more questions, that these truths might change these extrapolations and assumptions might cease to hold true. And that is by no means a bad thing!

What I hope I have been able to convey here is not that anything that is unscientific is wrong, but that perhaps to answer some of those philosophical questions or even seemingly trivial ones, maybe a little science wouldn’t hurt.


  • I urge you to read the written version of three lectures Richard Feynman gave in 1963 on “The meaning of it all”. In his own fascinatingly unique way Feynman attempts to answer some questions on the true value of science in the real world and how it perhaps does not answer all of the questions it poses. 

  • There are also a number of books by Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Outliers, What the Dog Saw, and Blink) which investigate our own minds and scientifically evaluate our relation to the world around us and the choices that shape it. 

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