The Art of Being a Scientist

I’ve had “The Art of Being a Scientist: A Guide for Graduate Students and their Mentors” sitting on my desk for some time now. It looks to be a fascinating and useful read, however, I was deathly afraid that I was “too late” to open the book and get anything from it. I mean, I’m no spring chicken in this department. I’m a 6th year grad student. What if it tells me that I’ve just been doing it wrong all along? That’s certainly not going to help my anxiety any…

Well, I opened up the book in a fit of courage and/or insanity, and I’m actually pretty pleased with it so far. I can easily skip over the chapters like “choosing a thesis project” and still learn quite a lot from the rest. In fact, I think scientists in any stage of their career can benefit.

After the introduction, Sneider and Larner get right into the heart of the matter. What IS science? You think you know when you get out of undergrad and have had a little bit of research experience. For most of us, I don’t think the full realization of what DOING science is like, day in and day out, is like until you tackle a PhD thesis. The chapter starts with some pretty obvious things, such as that science needs logic and repeatability and relies on observations of the natural world. Scientific theories have to be falsifiable and stand up to test after test. Science has predictive power that surpasses any so-called soothsayer in history.

A hypothesis emerging... Darwin's "tree of life"

However, the book is quick to point out that there is no “one right way” in which to do science. The authors compare deduction, which starts with a hypothesis that is tested by observations, and induction, where an observation leads to a hypothesis. The former is more logical and is reminiscent of the “scientific method” charts you see floating around. The latter come from a scientist looking at something and going, “Huh. That’s weird. That looks like a pattern or a correlation.” Further study then tests the new hypothesis. A great example would be the theory of evolution by natural selection, which grew in large part from Charles Darwin’s observations of the natural world and actually contradicted the working hypothesis with which he started.

Science also contains aspect of both reductionism and holism. Though critics of science often say that we scientists just break things down too far, a full understanding of the natural world requires understanding of both the parts and the whole. Quantum mechanics may describe almost everything in the particle world, and particles do make up everything, but that alone won’t get you very far in understanding how a particular disease can be treated.

The experimentalist and the theorist

With these different styles of thinking and working, there is room for many types of scientists. This is the section that I found the most heartening. Let’s face it, some people are really good at coding huge computer simulations. Others can work with equations for hours on end. Still more like to carry out well-controlled experiments and others will explore an uncharted regime to see what is there. There is room for all of these types and everything in between. It’s easy to stereotype scientists, especially when you are striving to become one and don’t think you measure up. But science needs all kinds of minds to do the work to unravel the universe.

Science, believe it or not, involves a certain amount of creativity. I didn’t quite believe it when my first research advisors warned me that the particular task I was undertaking had a certain “art” to it. However, there is a human element to interpretation and analysis that no computer can yet do for us. The mind of a scientist has to wander and create and explore and make leaps that seem to defy logic. Only then can the work be done and put through the rigorous tests that the scientific process brings. This is part of what makes science hard and also beautiful. I unabashedly think it is one of the most spectacular human endeavors. As Carl Sagan said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

For now, I highly recommend this book to young scientists at any stage, and I’ll keep updating with interesting tidbits as I work through it. I do wish I had this book when I was a first year grad student, but I got here eventually!

3 comments for “The Art of Being a Scientist

  1. Mark Z.
    February 9, 2011 at 11:27

    Great post! I’m a first year astro grad student and we’ve been using this book as our text in the intro “how to be a grad student” course this semester. I have to say, it’s been pretty helpful so far; reading the chapter on choosing an advisor ended up giving me the motivational kick to change my current advisor!

  2. March 3, 2011 at 13:02

    This is great! These are some of my favorite people connecting me to the cosmos, again. Nice mix, good editing. Well done.

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