Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Talk to some National Youth Science Forum Students, 8/2/08

Where am I?
What’s going on?
These are not just questions I ask myself when I find myself up in front of a roomful of people, but questions I ask myself every day of my life. If I ceased to ask myself these questions, I would cease to be a scientist. I would become a non-scientist: or ‘muggle’ as we call them in the trade.
But, it is not enough to ask these questions. I could ask these questions and still not be a scientist. I might be a mystic, or an astrologer, or an internet conspiracy theorist.
What makes me a scientist is the way I try to answer these questions.

I haven’t been able to find this quote in the original German, but in English I think it is a perfectly dandy little quote. It is very measured and pedantically accurate, as a scientific quote ought to be.
It doesn’t say that everything else is rubbish: it says that everything else is poetry, imagination, two fine and splendid things. And it doesn’t rule out other means of knowledge: it doesn’t say there is no such thing as divine revelation; it doesn’t say that knowledge *won’t* be beamed directly into our brain by the Cephalopod Overminds of Omicron Ceti. But there is no possible way those possible means of knowledge can be considered to be ‘at our disposal’.
The only thing this quote lacks, as a description of the scientific way of trying to answer the question ‘what’s going on?’ is a definition of ‘experiment’. And here is the best definition of ‘experiment’ that I have come across:

An ‘experiment’ is just a small, controlled bit of ‘experience’. That’s all.
Because I endorse these last two quotes, I was moved to amend a third quote, which I found on a whiteboard in a student office:


The successful scientist and the raving crank are not separated by the quality of their inspirations. There is no mystical attribute of ‘quality’ that raises the scientist above the muggle. I would argue that most successful scientists spend a great deal of their time thinking up stupid ideas. Linus Pauling- another Nobel laureate- has said that the way to have good ideas is to have lots of ideas, and throw the bad ones away.
We decide which ideas are bad not by appealing to the Church, or the Central Committee of the Party, but by the procedure outlined in Feynman’s quote. That is what makes us scientists. What makes us ‘successful scientists’ depends on how you want to define ‘successful’.
You will note that these quotes seem biased in favour of what are called the ‘experimental’ sciences. The experimental sciences where you can take a small piece of the universe that you pretty much control- a test tube, or a nuclear reactor, or a bit of perfused llama liver- and do pretty much the same thing over and over again, with you controlling the conditions, until you discover a new physical law.
The historical sciences are things like astronomy, geology and biology where you are trying to make sense of somewhat larger pieces of the universe that are beyond your control. You can’t go out and blow up a star, or drop a few finches on an island and come back in a million years, or squash two continents together to see what will happen. But this doesn’t mean the historical sciences are not sciences.
In the historical sciences, you are observing experiments that nature has done for you.
You don’t have acccess to the experimental logbooks showing exactly what happened with the ancestor of the moa arrived in New Zealand, or when India started running into Asia, and you know that a lot of unique historical events, impossible to predict, went into the speciation of the moas and the exact shape of the Himalayas. So you can’t make the kind of exact predictions that you can in the experimental sciences. But on the other hand, nature has done a lot of these experiments and left them lying around.
The first principle that makes the historical sciences sciences, rather than history, is uniformitarianism. This means that we assume the same physical laws apply everywhere in space and time.
Our explanation of the stars have to use the same physics that we have figured out using light bulbs and nuclear reactors.
Our explanation of the moa has to use the same biochemistry and physiology that we have figured out using chickens and polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis.
Our explanation of the Himalayas has to use the same chemistry and rheology that we have figured out using test tubes and corn starch.
Now, this is just a guess, as in Richard Feynman’s quote. It is the simplest guess we could make, which is why we made it.

Einstein never said this.


[Note 1]
And William of Ockham never said this. (This is a late Mediaeval Latin way of saying the same thing; ‘entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity’).
We made this because it was the simplest guess we could make. But it is a good guess.
We have never found anything yet- out there among the stars, or back there buried under kilometres of limestone in the distant past- which cannot be explained using the physical laws we have figured out here and now. We have found things that can’t be explained by anything we actually see happening now, but we can postulate processes that make sense, that follow the same rules, that explain those things.

[Note 2]
This is just a picture to remind me of the dangers of hubris. [Note 3]


[Note 4]
Now, when I was growing up I was captivated by the historical sciences. I still am.
When I was growing up, a man named Carl Sagan was on the television talking about this incredible sweep of cosmic history, these countless galaxies like grains of sand,everything spewing out from an ancient singularity, and the accidents of history making Earth like Earth and Venus like Venus.
A man named Stephen Jay Gould was writing these articles in ‘Natural History’ about this incredible sweep of biological history, everything radiating out from a primeval protoplasmic globule, and the accidents of history giving us penguins and Staphylococcus aureus and whatnot.
And as for geology- well, my grandfather is a geologist. My father is a geologist. My brother is – now - a geologist. So I can never remember not knowing that I lived on a thin crust of rock trundling inexorably toward Asia, can never remember not having this vision of the continents scuttling about, mashing into one another and splitting up again, the accidents of history making the world we know.
So, why have I ended up in an experimental science, instead of a historical science? There are some trivial, historical reasons for why I ended up where I am – which may be the real ones - and a more profound one which I may have made up many years later.

[Note 5]
In Queensland twenty or twenty five years ago, the way to get a good score to get into university was to do all the maths and science subjects in years 11 and 12. But I wanted to keep doing German, which I’d done up to the end of year 10. And I figured from what we did in year 10 that biology was a subject that was easy enough that I could learn it all out of books by myself. So I did German instead of biology. Not that I can remember very much German now. Doof bleibt doof, da hilfe keine Pillen.
I’ve found that there have been times in my life when I have worked really hard at things, and at these times I have usually done well. First semester of year eleven was one of those times, and in first semester year eleven I topped the class in Physics - which I never did in any other semester, mind you - so I got this idea in my head that I would go on and do Physics.

[Note 6]
I didn’t have any concrete plans for where I wanted to go in the future and wanted to keep my options open, and when I got to uni I did physics, maths, chemistry, and- this was a mistake- computer science. I don’t know why I did computer science. I can’t remember. Maybe it was peer pressure. I was useless at computer science. I should have done something biological or geological...and then maybe I would have ended up in the historical sciences. But there I was in first year, not doing any historical sciences.
I found- this is just me- that while high school physics had been easy, uni physics was really really hard. This was mostly because I did not work hard enough at my maths. On the other hand, the physics pracs were great. I had a lot of fun in the pracs and did really well- but the exams were about as much fun as eating broken glass. Chemistry was the other way around. I found- this is just me- that the exams were easy, but the pracs were terrible. There was real, not metaphorical, broken glass everwhere.
So I ended my first year still uncertain, a little bit disspirited about how badly I had done in physics. And with no strong motivations, liable to be batted one way or another by small influences.

In between 1st year and 2nd year I read this book about Quantum Mechanics – an example of what I would now call the nitwit’s interpretation of Quantum Mechanics - and this inspired me to keep going with physics.
Second year was more of the same. Good pracs and bad exams in Physics, Bad pracs and good exams in Chemistry. I finished the year still uncertain, still at the whim of the winds of fate.

And in between 2nd year and 3rd year, I happened to read something about the discovery of the structure of DNA- I think it was this famous book- and I thought, aha! I will do biochemistry. Biochemistry really is the science of the 21st century. It is where the big discoveries are being made that will cure cancer and give us potatoes that grow plastic instead of starch and let us genetically modify ourselves so we look like Klingons.
So in the next year I did 2nd year biochemistry and molecular biology and some 3rd year chemistry and maths units.
And the next year I did 3rd year biochemistry and molecular biology and the rest of the 3rd year chemistry units.
And over this time, I discovered that biochemistry pracs were even worse than chemistry pracs. With chemistry pracs, if they didn’t work, you usually could figure out why. Biochemistry pracs didn’t work for no reason. 50% of the time. Again, this is just me. I had thought molecular biology was all shiny machines that buzzed and clicked and spat out beautiful numbers, but it turned out to be all artsy-craftsy, full of messy polyacrylamide gels that never worked out properly. Of course, it is better now, I expect.


[Note 7]
And sometime around then, I happened to do a subject called ‘Advanced Physical Chemistry’ which was basically a reading list and a two-week project in a research lab. I did a project with A/Prof Ernie Senogles which involved playing with liquid nitrogen and fire, and it was a lot of fun. Exactly what I was doing there I’ll tell you after you’ve had another couple of years of science, because it will take too long if I start explaining now, and people will suspect me of trying a hard-sell to get you all to do chemistry.
But physical chemistry is more or less the exams of chemistry combined with the pracs of physics. And I decided this would probably suit me pretty well. When I looked at all I had done at uni, physical chemistry was pretty much in the middle, with wings stretching out to biochemistry in one direction and 1st year computer science in the other.
Those are the trivial, historical reasons I ended up where I am, I guess.
Now for the deeper reason that I may have made up years later.
I don’t think I really picked physical chemistry because it was in the middle of the things I had done up until then, or because I was good at it. I think I picked it because it was a field where I could actually *do* those experiments and edge closer to truth. I realised I would rather work in a field where I got to do my own experiments, rather than look at the results of experiments nature had done for me. And the first of those experiments I met happened to be in this subject area in the middle of my degree, and involved playing with liquid nitrogen and fire. Because everything I had done in the lab up until that project, with the liquid nitrogen and the fire, had not really been an experiment, had been, in a way, something inherently pointless, because we already knew what should happen in the experiment, and it had been done so many times that the only possible explanation for an unexpected result was that I had stuffed it up. Real science is not like that; real science is doing experiments where you don’t know the answer.
So I went on and worked with Ernie Senogles for five more years, and came out with a PhD in physical chemistry and could call myself ‘Dr Chris’. During this time I went to a talk by Jean Marie-Lehn, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1987. He said this:


What he meant was, once we understand what is going on with the physics, the basic ground rules of the universe, and once we have nutted out precisely what is happening with the sort of life we have on our planet that is all based on a very, very, very, small subset of the possible chemical reactions, we can go off and create things that are as complicated as life, but that use different chemistry. The buzzword ‘nanotechnology’ is a first little prefiguring of that 25thcentury that Jean Marie Lehn is dreaming about.


After I finished my PhD, I went to the University of Sydney, and I worked there for five years, with some very interesting people, and some very smart people and some people who were scary beyond reason. And that was a very exciting place to work and we did a lot of good science.


But since I grew up in a provincial city, under balmy tropical skies, living in Sydney for me was too much like living in a box full of starving weasels, and I couldn’t possibly see myself living the rest of my life in *that* sort of place. [Note 8]


And then I came here, to the University of New England, and I’ll have been here four years in April, working with some very interesting people, and some very smart people and no scary people as yet. This is an exciting place to work and we’re doing good science here, and I intend to keep going until they pry my test tubes from my cold, dead hands.
So that is how I got where I am. And a bit about what’s going on.
But, if the truth be told, I find monologue really boring.
I think dialogue is much more interesting.
So, if we have time, I would love to answer some questions.


Notes
1: The font is Baskerville, an allusion to William of Baskerville in Umberto Eco’s ‘Name of the Rose’
2: The picture is ‘The Death of Smaug’. If you don’t get the reference, you need to re-read ‘The Hobbit’.
3: I was thinking that there was one problem that seemed obvious, after I had written that no mattter how far back in time we go we haven’t found exceptions to the laws of nature we’ve figured out, because we have these highly peculiar initial conditions for what we call ‘the universe’. I prepared a slide in case anyone asked me a question about this and tacked it on the end, but nobody asked me about it.


4: I was hoping someone would ask me about this picture in the question time. Nobody did. Looks a lot like Shoalwater Bay, doesn’t it? It’s not.
5: This is a picture of Pimlico State High School. I found it on a website in Brazil.
6: This is a picture of the Molecular Sciences building at James Cook University. Thanks to Maree Hines for sending the photo!
7: This is actually an experimental set-up where one of my current PhD students is doing something similar to what I used to do with liquid nitrogen and fire.
8: Technically, my fixed-term appointment was not renewed, and I was casting desperately about for a job somewhere, anywhere- South Dakota, Izmir, Bermuda... But I think my manifest lack of enthusiasm for the big city was one of the things that did me in.

4 comments:

Marco said...

Nice. This is my favourite of your monologues.

Marco said...

I don't know - maybe you could transfer some of our more scientific aspects of our recent Blogging into a comment here - perhaps fitting it into the "first you guess" procedure.

Chris Fellows said...

Thanks! Do not fear, once your theory is sufficiently polished and consistent with the orthodox paradigm of molecular biology, I shall discuss it at length here :)

Marco said...

Great - I need to touch up on my molecular biology. One question - Is the process of having tens to hundres of millions of sperm competing for an egg considered to be natural selection? I mean as part of current scientific understanding.