Friday, September 29, 2006

The Process of Science

I'll never forget my "Wizard of Oz" moment with science. It was senior year (the first one of two). I was sitting in Robert Rasera's solid state physics class and and he was lecturing on surfaces (for geometric reasons, the physics of edges and middles are different). John Lau asked a good question and the response was shocking..."We don't know." Not that he didn't know, but that the big WE didn't know and then he sketched the competing approaches, both of which explicitly contained clear assumptions that had to be wrong, even if they were capable of generating good predictions in certain proscribed cases.

Before that class, all we were shown were special cases: free particles, particles in infinite potential wells, the harmonic oscillator. We learned when to change from rectangular to polar coordinates, when integrating by parts would help solve a problem, and other mathematical hints from Heloise that were sure to render every physical problem mathematically solvable. Or so we thought.

It was only then, in that solid state class that we realized that they had been clever in picking and choosing only the exactly solvable problems to present to us. The real picture, doing real science, was different. It wasn't so sleek and neat. It was messy. It was creative. It was not a set of methods, but a process.

That picture of science as a process is unfortunately all too rarely presented in popular discussions of science. We usually get either 1) dumbed down reporting of results that are very interesting to a portion of the scientific community and which get touted as breakthroughs in order to justify taking perfectly good space in the paper or on tv away from Brad and whoever Brad is now seeing, or 2) vague hints of some sort of controversy that we don't really understand, but which makes us feel superior for being able to say that those smarty pants scientists don't understand it either. The real scientific process never really seems to show up.

Of course, there are good reasons. First of all, both the consumers and producers of news reporting are largely scientifically illiterate. The craft of the modern day reporter is a combination of P.T. Barnum showmanship, Edward R. Murrow political coverage, and Rona Barrett sleaze-peddling. They need extended simple narratives with a hook, a good guy, a bad guy, and a plot twist. Science is so large and so complex, that you don't usually get that, at least not easily...and, let's face it, Brian Greene with his boyish good looks, clear well-spoken nature, and explicit love of physics may be this generation's Carl Sagan, but even he is no Tom Cruise.

The second reason is that science is politically loaded. You have forces from portions of the right who are openly antagonistic towards science reporting altogether because elevating science disadvantages their agenda and you have pro-scientific folks on the left who get very nervous when the messiness of the process of science is shown because it facilitates the epistemological relativist storyline in which science is in no way authoritative, is just another religion, and there is no more reason to believe in scientific results than in witchcraft, alchemy, or intelligent design. If science is portrayed as less than absolutely exact and rigorous, then all of science gets written off in the popular mind; so it is better to keep the puffed up fake intellectual superhero, than to risk showing the strong, but human face that is real science. Combine the fears of these groups and you have pressure not to show how science is actually done.

But every once in a while it does squeak out. The Pluto wars is a good example. While it generated some ridicule, I think the reporting of the debate over the status of Pluto gave a rare glimpse into the sort of process that is science. What was wonderful about it is that it was that the controversy was easy to explain, it was shown how advances in knowledge create problems for our old staid standard model, and because of the time we all spent in third grade memorizing the planets the issue was unusually personal to us in the way it usually only is for the actual scientists in the field. We were able to connect with this at an emotional level so that while we had to grudgingly accept that the ultimate result was rational, we still wished that it could have been otherwise.

James from my first year seminar, pointed me to another good example on Wired News about string theory. Peter Woit of Columbia has taken his longstanding debate with his Columbia string-theory colleagues out of the faculty club and into the popular press with his book, Not Even Wrong which argues that all the hype around string-theory as a means of reconciling relativity and quantum theory is not only not warranted, but ill-founded. Unlike the Pluto case, the physics here is intricate and the point of contention one unfortunately removed from the understanding of most people (despite being the center court match of 20th century physics), but Mark Anderson's article is wonderfully done because it not only sets the scene for the big game, but explains who the players are and why their records are strong enough for them to have made the playoffs. What Anderson does is to show how you can have passionate scientific debate over an issue far from resolved without having a breakdown into anyone's guess is as good as anyone else's. Wouldst we had more such writing.