An existential crisis: What am I actually doing? What defines this as Science?
It was critical, I believe, for my development as a geoscientist-in-training to go through these motions during 2014. It was my first year of doing a Masters degree by dissertation in Geochemistry.
Desperate for understanding, bewildered by geo-jargon, yours truly noticed a very nondescript flyer on campus which advertised a special lecture. It would proceed in the University of Cape Town’s Engineering Faculty later that week. “The Emergence of Provisional Truth in Natural Sciences,” given by a natural phenomenon within the speaker’s own right. He is an astronomer-physicist-philosopher triple gift to society.
Before I outline the brilliant lecture, I’d like to give a prologue (confession) into it.
Fact: Publicity via global news networks occurs during the birth of scientific discoveries. This new knowledge demonstrates a deeper understanding of our place in the hominid scheme/solar system/universe [insert your field of interest here]. This is important, yes, so we stick it all over science blogs and in the science and tech slot on CNN. It makes people excited about science. You get to find out about brand new phenomena! Good for Tinder date small talk (or is that just me?).
Fact: Discoveries happen by happy accident.
Opinion: Do not go into scientific training if you are seeking only to be a discoverer. Ah, the vivid wisdom and clarity of hindsight. There’s a rigorous and tortuous path to follow before one can even begin to use a bunch of learned intellectual tools on a project which purely for scientific exploration. Projects like those are boons, and are typically available from PhD level and beyond.
Before PhD = achievement unlocked , where the opportunities and scientific mindset coexist at a period in one’s lifetime, one must undergo an existential science crisis.
How can one make a discovery when one is ignorant to 1) what one is looking at, and 2) how one explains it in a structured, understandable way? This is where the human/social nature of science comes in [post 2].
As I help out in petrography and mineralogy pracs with second year students, it becomes increasingly clear to me that Science is a very human and social exercise. Science is not equal to guaranteed discoveries. I’ll digress with this anecdote: During a practical wherein the students look at minerals under a microscope, one particular scholar didn’t yet know how to evaluate the stability of a garnet grain. There were one or two embayed edges, but more or less, it seemed to be a happy, well-formed grain.
She had not yet discovered for herself, that SHE was the one who had to draw the lines in her mind’s eye around the garnet grain, to an approximate shape. The information about the garnet grain was not going to JUMP out at her from some cerebral cortex firework. She expected this, however, and berated herself by thinking that she was supposed to be seeing something more than the grain she was seeing. This is not a healthy mindset in which to conduct science. Unaware of the way to equip one’s mind for science, one can spin into an existential science TIZZ.
SO, how? HOW to Science? What IS science?
Forget about the professor locked in the “ivory tower” punching away at calculations toward guaranteed discovery. No. In the Natural Sciences, it’s something quite different.