This opinion piece first appeared in The Conversation on 7 November 2011.
What’s a scientist? Let me tell you a story.
A couple of decades ago, I was catching large, ugly salamanders, known as hellbenders, with a group of like-minded scientists in a remote stretch of river in the American Ozarks.
We were marking each animal and collecting DNA samples so we could analyse the population structure and migration patterns of the species. A barefoot boy stepped out from behind a tree, shy with strangers but curious to know what we were doing.
We tried to explain that, because we were scientists, this was more than just a fishing trip – this was our job. The boy’s face lit up: his future prospects had suddenly improved because here was a job he could see himself doing.
But the more we tried to explain ourselves, the more suspicious he seemed. His eyes narrowed and he asked the fatal question: “is there any book learning in that?”
So much book learning was involved in that apparently innocent fishing trip that it was hard to explain what we were doing to someone who did not have a scientific education.
Writing things down
Scientists do a lot of reading before they embark on the business of research. They have to do a lot of writing as well. In fact, the difference between playing in the forest and being a scientist is the act of writing things down. Scientists keep careful notes so their observations can be analysed.
Of course, anyone can make observations. Everyone who goes fishing comes back with stories. But only the scientifically-minded will come back with a notebook detailing the facts.
Unless these details are recorded, the scientist does not have enough detail to develop hypotheses and make predictions.
Scientists are driven by an urge to explain mysteries, describe phenomena and solve problems. We use a few common intellectual tools, which include asking detailed questions and collecting facts that may refute or support an idea.
One might say scientists are people who poke the unknown with a stick. By this, I mean scientific minds apply tools to problems that capture our imagination or stimulate our curiosity.
Sometimes the tools we use don’t take a physical form. All scientists agree on the importance of having a good hypothesis. A hypothesis is an idea that can be tested. Think of it as a question that can be poked with a stick.
Scientists are found in groups of like-minded pokers, who gather to discuss the particular questions they wish to explore and to admire each other’s sticks.
Some scientists have exquisitely fine poking devices – forceps, scalpels, pipettes and other delicate bits of equipment. Some scientists have giant drills, telescopes, synchrotrons and other large installations. Some have lasers, some have loggers and some have laptops.
There are questions that cannot be answered, ideas that cannot be tested, things that cannot be poked. These are the imponderables – intellectual items of wonderment and conjecture.
In many cases they may be things that cannot be poked at this time, but with persistence and inspiration and invention we may one day develop a stick that will serve. We call this scientific progress.
Credit where credit’s due
If you invent a new stick – in the sense that you develop a novel approach, technique or idea that allows us to ask questions we could not ask before – you could win the Nobel Prize. You would certainly be assured of a high citation rate, because every scientist that uses your idea will have to give you credit for their discoveries.
Conceptual breakthroughs often occur shortly after the invention of new ways to poke the unknown. A deeper level of understanding becomes possible when we find a new way of thinking about the patterns we discern, or the problems we face.
Explaining the universe in a new way, even if it is a slight shift in understanding or perspective, always involves a creative act. It is a particularly human activity.
The scientific process is messy and complex in the real world but the best theories and solutions are usually tidy and elegant. This in itself is a mystery that deserves further prodding.
Scientists yearn for the breakthrough. But before they can expect to get there, they spend years reading, thinking and exploring their topic. They must achieve a deep understanding of their topic before they can ask a question that has not been asked before.
Spirit of science
From the outside, science often looks like a lot of fun. But not all field trips take place on glorious summer days, and not all equipment works the way it should.
From the inside, science feels more like a spiritual journey. Private contemplation and personal fortitude are required to prepare for the inevitable public presentations (written and verbal).
At some level, each scientist has embarked on a search for ultimate truth and a deeper understanding of our universe. At another level, most scientists would not want to admit that. We are not in the habit of taking ourselves seriously.
To prepare for this essay, I poked the word “scientist” with a stick called Wikipedia. It’s a flawed stick, and not used by the serious scientist for the development of deep insights. But I did discover the word “boffin” – slang for scientist – may derive from the word “puffin”, a bird that’s serious and comical at the same time.
That sounds like most of my scientific friends, and a bit like the process both they and I love.
Dr Susan Lawler is Head of the Department of Environmental Management and Ecology at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga