I don’t know any scientists who live in ivory towers. Seriously.
Sit back, relax, and listen. This is not hardcore quantum physics. This is science. Everybody can understand science itself.
This particular piece is inspired by Richard Feynman’s words on beauty.
The Sober Scientist.
What an excruciatingly weird concept to me. I am one, a scientist, I mean; and I know how much I have to force myself to not feel but think when it comes to science.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I know where the image of the sober scientist comes from. It starts with all these seemingly grave men who seemed to indulge in their seriousness, deigning once in a while to speak to a mere mortal about issues not related to their important work.
In an historical context, this graveness has its reasons, too. Think of Ptolemy, for example, and of Isaac Newton. Both did nothing less than explaining the known universe – in the second and 17th century BC respectively. Can there be anything more important than that, I ask you!?
But when asked to describe his work Newton had this to say: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants – and then he became an alchemist. You see, he, too, was a human, with weird thoughts and everything. Alchemists are many things. Sober they are not.
Which brings me to the actual scientific process as it feels. It may and does differ from person to person and in detail but there is an underlying sameness to a lot of it.
It always starts out with something that stirs one’s curiosity. Yes, that may very well be an unusual line in an absorption spectrum or something of that nature; but whatever it is, it appeals to your feelings. It makes you wonder, it makes you curious, it motivates you to start digging and finding out more.
Following that comes what is normally referred to as The Scientific Process: The concocting of a hypothesis, the conducting of experiments, the analysis of whatever data is the result of the experiments. This is a period dominated by the scientist being and staying serious-minded, looking for loop-holes in her own and others’ thinking. It is just as much about psychology as it is about turning knobs, mixing chemicals or doing mathematics.
But then. Then! Then at the end of all the toil may be the result, the great synthesis. Oh, what joy it is to finally know – that you don’t actually know at all. I mean, yes we may now understand how that unusual line in our spectrum comes about, but now the rest of the lines, the stuff that made sense before, does not make sense anymore. And that is really intriguing…
Nowadays, the only time you ever hear of “sober science” is when people who have poor understanding of what science is, want to define what science is; and yes, that includes some, though not exactly many educated people with a science degree as well.
Science is really just a method. Doing science, however, is an experience. Scientists are not more sober, mostly they are not even more intelligent or something, but they are three things:
1. They are interested.
2. They are human and most of them know rather explicitly about human shortcomings in order to work around and with these shortcomings – especially their own.
3. Some are career people, but by far the most are dreamers – and nothing is more poetic to a real dreamer than nature herself.
You know, in January a couple of years ago, a colleague and I went to Abisko in Northern Sweden in order to teach interested tourists, the laymen of all laymen, if you will, about aurora. Aurora, if you do not know, is about the Sun, the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic fields – loads of magnetic fields.
In fact, nothing happens without magnetic fields, so we had to make magnetic fields fun for people who had paid money to hear inspiring stories about one of the most wondrous phenomena on Earth. We made them take up their mobile phones, install apps that would use the in-phone magnetometers and look for electric cables underground in the area, which we then claimed to be models for aurora currents in the atmosphere.
Yes, that is exactly what we did.
The tourists seemed to like it, and that may surprise you – until you understand that the Sun, the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field are all about life on Earth as well. Take away one of them and we do not exist. When you see aurora, you see life.
There is a story there, no, there is poetry there, a kind of poetry that reminds me of what is called Feynman’s Flower.