In the US, science is regarded as valuable, but dry and a bit stiff. As a student, it’s easy to get this impression, studying rigid facts first explored centuries ago. The math, chemistry, physics, and biology we learn in high school and college are about recreating long-known answers by well-established methods. But the process of making new science and math is inherently creative, and new ideas require letting the mind run wild a little. In this post, I’ll talk about how I develop my ideas.
I work with populations of oscillators. The idea of this research is that the complexity of the whole (the population) exceeds the complexity of each element (the oscillator). The human brain is a good example of such a system–each neuron is fairly simple and well-understood, but overall brain behavior arising from the interactions of many neurons is not understood. My research tends to work by observation–I notice something I find interesting and I explore that further. Other researchers work on what they suspect they will find, based upon other work. All research works within the context of its field. There are many interesting behaviors I have noted in my experiments, but I explore the ones I might explain. Really random observations are cool, but hard to frame in a way which is meaningful to the community.
The above may not sound particularly creative. But the key to experiments like I do is imagining what might happen when one explores slightly beyond what is known. It requires extrapolating from the areas we know, in the context of the rules we know, to the areas we don’t know. Some of the rules we know are pretty absolute, like thermodynamics, but others may be flexible. (As a note on this point, the stable chemical oscillations I study were once considered thermodynamically impossible. Someone had to bend the established understanding of thermodynamics to explain these oscillations. Einstein had to bend Newton’s Laws for relativity, and he arrived at that conclusion by logic rather than by observation.) In an experimental apparatus like mine, thousands of experiments are possible. It is up to the experimentalist to pick from the possibilities, in the context of what might work in his imagination, to demonstrate something hitherto unknown.
In some ways, the process is similar to writing. There are rules that must be obeyed, and the process of finding something new or interesting is very indirect. With science and writing, I develop some of my best ideas drinking a beer or taking a walk. Sitting at a desk focusing is required at times, but so too is active contemplation. The rules of science are broader and more rigid and take longer to learn, but there are similarities.
A lot of historical scientists were fascinating people, akin to historical artists. Van Gogh got his ear cut off in a fight. Astronomer Tycho Brahe lost his nose in a duel. Salvador Dali shellacked his hair. Electrical engineer Nikola Tesla fell in love with a pigeon. Mathematician Paul Erdos lived itinerantly for decades. In one visit to a colleague, he couldn’t figure out how to open a carton of juice, so he instead stabbed it open (among many, many other oddities). Physicist Richard Feynman used to work on his physics at strip clubs. Artists may share their eccentricities more in their works, but I would argue that scientists have every bit as much oddness.
I hope this post illustrates a little what it is like to be a research scientist, and how science at the cutting edge works. For more science posts, check out my fun science list.