Monday, 2 April 2012

How science is done

Hmmmm - I originally wrote this while twiddling my thumbs at Changi Airport in Singapore for a few hours, but the "one the road" blog software I was using seems to have deleted it (perhaps it had a read and didn't like the post :)

So, I was returning from a very busy and fruitful week in France. While there, I got to thinking about just how we do science. If you read textbooks (or, if there is nothing left on the shelf worth reading, philosophy) then you get told science is testing ideas and models with experimentation, and then reworking your ideas in light of new evidence. The problem is that this viewpoint, however, is that it is too clean, to clinical, too robotic.

But let's start with the environment, the beautiful city of Strasbourg, in Alsace, France. It is home to the very impressive Strasbourg Cathedral, which, between the years of 1647 to 1874 was the tallest building in the world.
The keen-eyed amongst you will recognise this view from the recent movie, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. While the architecture is pretty cool, my week was dedicated to science.

My visit was to the Strasbourg Observatory to work with my close collaborator, Rodrigo Ibata. So, how does this gel with the title of the post? Well, science is all about communication, and while scientists generally use email, nothing beats getting together with fellow scientists. While, because science is actually messy. Ideas are thrown out, shot down, picked up, compared to the literature, laughed at and even advanced.

As an example, here we are using the latest scientific techniques to consider trends in data.
This is called "sticking a bit of paper over a computer screen" and it works very well.

Part of the visit was spent outside of Strasbourg, out in the countryside, where we could focus even more on the research. The area was wonderfully gorgeous
and we spent a few days immersed in the discussion of science. It did not stop, from the rising to the setting of the Sun. Sure, discussions roamed from the nature of science, the rickerty nature of cosmology beyond the concordance model, the academic job market, the European economy, but the focus was science. Here's a typical scene:
Tap tap tap on the laptop, then discussions and arguments, followed by discussions and ideas (and multiple cups of tea and coffee). We managed to stop for food now and again in the warm air of spring
but while the keyboard tapping stopped, the discussions of science, techniques, mathematics etc continued.

So, it was messy, no real structure, just a general direction of conversations. And the result of the week? Extremely successful. We finished the week with a map of more than a dozen papers we need to write in the next year, most of them the most vaulted of papers - "high impact" papers, and a couple very high impact. We have ideas of new student projects, and grants to write, and directions of research to test, and data to obtain.

It was nothing like the "textbook" version of science. But it was great, and and great science was done. Nothing beats the messy interaction of real science.

1 comment:

  1. The messy interaction is great fun too. :-)