Saturday, September 10, 2005

The nature of science today

When we went through high school, I would have to guess that when we were asked the question “What is science?” we would have answered, depending on the year we were in school and what class we were taking at the moment, biology, chemistry, or physics. Maybe a few of us would have answered earth science. This is how I used to think about science, at least, because of the way it is normally presented in our schooling. Starting in middle school, science is presented as a bunch of disjointed disciplines and we almost never, if ever, hear our teachers talk about how biology is related to chemistry, or how physics and chemistry are related, and so on. Biology is biology, chemistry is chemistry, and physics is physics.

It was not until I actually began doing science later in my undergraduate years and into grad school that I finally learned what science really is. In actual scientific research, the pursuit for finding and understanding the truths of Nature break down the artificial isolation and barriers placed on scientific disciplines we tend to see in high school, and instead modern research labs and collaborations typically include a mix of talent and expertise from across the spectrum of fields. A group run by a professor with a degree in chemical engineering, for instance, includes chemists, a biologist, a geneticist, a computer scientist, a physicist, and other engineering majors. A medical research lab with a focus on cancer research has computer specialists, biophysicists, chemists, microbiologists, and biochemical engineers. These groups also have formed collaborations with engineers and product development specialists in industry, and the research labs also work with others in the college administration on patents and grant writing. My old experimental group, CDF out at Fermilab, had over 400 physicists who helped build and maintain one of the most sophisticated experiments on the planet, but it would not have ever worked had it not been for the steel workers, technicians, computer scientists, electrical engineers, accelerator physicists, administrators, and others in a variety of fields.

The point is, the way most textbooks still present science is best suited for the 19th and early 20th centuries, when most research was in a single discipline. One might say that the ‘easy’ stuff that is pure biology, chemistry or physics has been done, and more modern, cutting-edge research is found in the gray areas that are the overlaps between the major disciplines. Science is not a series of separate subject areas with intellectual boundaries that cut each other off from one another, but rather a continuum or ocean of unknown concepts, principles, and phenomena waiting to be discovered. Some of the broad scientific areas that will dominate future research this century, such as complexity, nanoscience, molecular biology, cosmology, quantum science, research into the brain, social science and economics (via network theory), astrobiology, and even continued searches for the TOE (theory of everything), all will make progress not just from experts in major disciplines, but rather through continued expansion of multi-field and multi-talent collaborations. I personally feel that the training of the next generation of scientists, doctors, social scientists, engineers, and anyone else in technical fields, needs to include and feature such notions about the true nature of science at least by the high school level of their education, because the approach one takes to prepare for such intellectual collaboration requires an awareness of not only the basics of a particular skill set within a discipline, but also limitations within a discipline that need to be filled by others. It is sort of like ‘it takes a village,’ the science way.

1 comment:

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