Reflections on what it is to be a scientist

What is it to be a scientist? What do scientists mean and understand by the word “scientist”? What do non-scientists mean and understand by that same word “scientist”? Are non-scientists really not scientists? And are scientists really scientists?

You get up in the morning, go pee, wash your hands and face with cold water, brush your teeth, and go have a good drink of water. You have a shower, get dressed, maybe have some coffee or tea, maybe breakfast, and then go to work. You get to the office and you start working on whatever it is that you were doing the day before, or start working on something new, but typically of a very similar nature as to that of what you were doing yesterday, the day before, the day before that, and for possibly years and decades.

This “work” that you do can be anything: preparing your next class of history or economics, literature or philosophy, geography, biology, chemistry, physics or math, to be presented later that day or next week to your grade 6, grade 9 or graduating students; it can be preparing for your next meeting in which you are presenting to potential investors your revolutionary idea for a project that will be so lucrative it will make Facebook look amateurish; it can be looking through tables of numbers in accounting spreadsheets to track expenditures and sales to make sure that your business is doing good and can continue to function as it has for years in this unpredictable market of consumers regulated by their likes and dislikes, their moods and fashions, their hopes or fears about the evolution of the national economy, and on and on; it can be to set up your cash, making sure you have enough of all the different types of coins and bills, and then starting, from the moment the store doors open, to ring things in from the first customer that lines up at your cash to buy their groceries for the day or the week, continuing this routine of welcoming and greeting them politely, passing all their items, obviously withholding any judgement on their person for buying those things, helping them bag their stuff and wishing them a pleasant day, over and over again from morning to night.

Of course, it can also be to sit down at your desk with your steaming cup of green tea, open a book, and start to read about the history of the second world war from the Chinese or Japanese perspective, about the comparative evolution of our species following the last ice age in the Fertile Crescent and North America, about writing style and how to craft the perfect sentence, about the relationship of butterfly species and birds on the different continents and climates, about the visual display of quantitative information, about political stability and civil unrest in developing countries in the latter half of the twentieth century; or it could be Plato’s dialogues, Galileo’s Messenger from the Stars, Newton’s Principia Mathematica, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, Popper’s Logic of Scientific Discovery, Savage’s Foundations of Statistics, Jaynes’s Probability Theory — the Logic of Science, or anything else from the countless works available for us to read, available for anyone to read at any time given their willingness and effort to read it.

Does what we do define who or what we are? No, it doesn’t. Does what we do tend to define the way we consider and perceive the world? Yes, it does. Does what we read, have read, think about define who or what we are? No, it doesn’t. Does what we read, have read, think about tend to define the way we consider and perceive the world? Yes, it does.

The persona of ‘the scientist’ dates back several centuries, if not millennia, all the way to ancient Egypt, Persia and Greece, where those who wondered about the functioning of the physical world, measured positions and motions of celestial objects, and worked out ways of both keeping track of things as well as calculating and estimating quantities related to physical phenomena, always stood out from the population, and had very privileged positions in society as holders of secret knowledge and deeper truths about the inner workings of the physical world. In many ways, this is still true today, albeit much less so, because scientists are enormously more numerous than they would have been several thousand or even a as little as a hundred years ago, when they were really extremely rare.

But what do twentieth century philosophers like Wittgenstein, Popper and Bertrand Russell mean when they use the word scientist, when they discuss what it means to speak the language of a scientist, to think like a scientist, to perceive the world like a scientist? Do they talk about those famous few that have marked the history of science but that are also remembered for it? Scientists like Copernicus, Galileo and Tycho Brahe, Rene Descartes, Blaise Pascal and Isaac Newton, Jacob Bernoulli, Leonard Euler and Karl Friedrich Gauss, Pierre Simon Laplace and James Clerk Maxwell, Karl Pearson and Ronald Fisher, Niels Bohr, Max Planck and Erwin Schrodinger, Bernhard Riemann, Hermann Minkowski and David Hilbert, Hendrik Lorentz and Albert Einstein, Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking, Enrico Fermi and Richard Feynman, and so many more uniquely gifted people whose work and discoveries we have studied and admired, often marvelled at as senior university students, but whose persons, personal traits, tendencies beliefs, social behaviours and familial relationships most of us know nothing about. Is this important or is it irrelevant?

einsteinWritingOnBlackboard

The scientist’s persona is defined by a complex mixture of ideas, beliefs, prejudices and other intellectual constructs rooted in a collective consciousness in which everything is distorted. We add to this the powerful attraction we tend to have to myths and tales, and our love for making important figures of the past larger than life, greater than great, more singular, more unique, more unusual, more special than anyone alive that we can actually see, encounter, speak to and interact with in person, even if hypothetically. Why all of this seems to be the way it is, no matter which human collective we consider, indeed is a good question whose answer could probably be found by digging into evolution and anthropological, into everything we can find out about our human ancestry, hoping to help elucidate deeply rooted psychological tendencies and behaviours we, as members of this race of homo sapiens, all share together.

But regardless of the actual details and the level of sophistication or refinement of what great scientists and mathematicians, great philosophers and thinkers, great historians and sociologists, or anybody else may have meant when speaking and referring to the notion of ‘the scientist’, it cannot have been and still cannot be anything other than an agglomeration of complex entangled intellectual, cultural, emotional and psychological constructs. Therefore, the unavoidable conclusion is that philosophers speaking of ‘the scientist’ are speaking of what they think and what they believe this is or should be. They are speaking of that complex mental construct they have developed and formulated in some way, undoubtedly to a level that satisfies their own requirements of intellectual and philosophical rigour, but that, in the end, bears little connection to the practical reality of what it is to be a scientist.

An innumerable number of interesting and useful questions can be posed, and an equally innumerable number of valid and different answers can be put forth in regards to this question of what it is to be a scientist. Does this mean it is not possible to agree on what is meant by it? Or does it mean that this is, in fact, quite hard to do?

Are we a scientist if we have a Bachelor’s degree in a scientific discipline? Anyone who does, knows that by the end of a Bachelor’s degree, what we know is that we have barely touched upon the rudiments of the discipline we have spent three or four years studying up to this point. And for most, it is almost embarrassing to be presented or even considered to be a scientist after graduating in physics or chemistry or biology or whatever other scientific field of study. So, the answer is definitely no.

Are we a scientist once we have spent another two or more years studying and working hard on much more advanced subjects towards a Master’s degree? Here again, doing this only serves to show us how little we know about the process of doing research and about the actual scientific foundations of the research we are participating in under the supervision and guidance of our thesis adviser. This is especially obvious if we are surrounded by or in contact with other graduate students working on their PhD with several more years of experience, and to whom we continuously turn for help and advice, these senior student who appear to us so knowledgeable and so wise from our perspective. So, are we a scientist once we have finished and defended our Master’s thesis, something that may have seemed to us a remarkable and maybe even gruelling accomplishment, but which to any doctoral student who has been through it is now seen for what it actually is: a baby thesis, a warm up for the real thing, for the real thesis that is the doctoral thesis.

Are we a scientist when we finish the course work for our PhD? When we finish the research project we chose or were encouraged to tackle? When we finish writing our doctoral thesis after three, four, five or more years of studying, reading countless papers and books, trying hard to understand things we don’t understand over and over again to eventually understand some of them, rarely completely and usually only superficially, but without knowing it, and only later, upon uncovering yet another level of understanding, realising it? When we defend the thesis and have this moment of great personal satisfaction and maybe even pride?

Of course not! We feel like we are just now allowed to enter the lowest ranks of research workers like our supervisors and their colleagues, those who have been doing research for decades, many sometimes started before we were even born, and we are a new kid on the block who mostly knows things that everyone else in the field knows, with possibly a few tiny bits that we might know a little better than some, but usually only in our skewed perspective and restricted exposure both of which are the result of isolating ourselves in order to complete the work that we have either set for ourselves or that has been set before us.

So, are we a scientist when we have that PhD that we can when we choose to place before or after our name? No, we are not. At least not relatively speaking. Although when we go out in the world and exchange with ‘regular folks’, those who have not spent five or seven or ten years in graduate school, we realise that we speak a different language to a certain extent; we realise that we see things, maybe most things, quite differently than they do, and this no matter what we are talking about, regardless of the actual subject of our studies; there is a different perspective on things, which is difficult to describe but definitely palpable and usually recognised. But when we interact with mature research workers we time and time again are forced to recognise how little we know and how much we still have to learn just to be able to exchange at a level that is sufficiently high to be interesting and useful.

When do we become scientists? Is there a moment at which we begin to feel that we are a scientist? Is there a point at which research workers consider someone to have become part of their peers? Is it possible to actually identify this in an objective way? We could say: when you have published a refereed paper, when you have published ten or twenty, or when your papers have amassed a certain critical number of citations; when you have given your first conference presentation, or when you have given ten or twenty of them; when you have given your first seminar, taught you first class, given your first series of lectures; when you have given your first invited review talk or your tenth. We could go on and on in this way, listing milestones and achievements, but can any of these actually determine at what point we can be considered or consider ourselves to be a scientist?

And what of this language, this language of scientists? Is it that a scientific training changes the way we understand the meaning of common words used in everyday language, or is it that the somehow different and possibly expanded worldview, to a greater or less extent, brought about by going through the process of scientific training, that everyday things, words and meanings are perceived and interpreted in a different and possibly wider general context that allows a more subtle understanding of not just these things relating to the specific subject of the training, but to everything else as well. Does this mean that it is not possible to agree on what different words mean by agreeing on a definition for them? Certainly not. Does it mean that communication between a scientist, whatever that is, and a non-scientist is not possible or not really possible because of the unbridgeable gap between their different worldview that causes an unsurmountable obstacle in their respective abilities to convey what each one is trying to express? Certainly not.

For all of the physical sciences, the universal language is that of mathematics, and it does not depend on culture, religious background, country, gender, skin colour, age, or whatever other superficial characteristic we might have inherited or learned from our family, friends, peers and larger social context. In any other field of science or anything else, for that matter, the specificities of language that are developed in time, and that we usually refer to as jargon, but which involves not just specific kinds of words, but also particular sentence structures, as well as speaking and writing styles. Are these somehow only accessible to those in the particular field of research?

Not really, are they? There is nothing fundamental about this jargon, this way of using words and sentences to express specific kinds of information. It is only a matter of learning it, which only requires exposure and time. To a great extent, to understand the language that is specific to a branch of science or other field of research, we do not even need to have formal training in that field, but only enough exposure to acquire these language-related skills.

Could a Galileo be imagined to be brought from his seventeenth century world into Roger Penrose’s twenty first century classroom on differential geometry in multi-dimensional non-euclidean spaces and understand even a handful of the words he would be speaking? Rather doubtful. On the other hand, could Galileo explain to Penrose his measurements and calculations on evaluating the acceleration of different spheres of the same size but of different materials on inclined planes? Absolutely! Could Galileo, given enough time, learn the vocabulary as well as the mathematical details required to grasp and follow Penrose’s lectures on curved non-euclidean spaces? Surely he could. Is there some kind of unique and special mindset that a scientist has, and that sets them apart, granting them access to hidden, secret aspects of the world, physical and even metaphysical? This was believed for many centuries and by most people, including those scientists themselves, but this is now not very believable, is it? Is it true that a career and a lifetime devoted to scientific inquiry and investigation, to the study of evermore complex subjects and mathematical formalism, the continual pursuit of deeper and more complete understanding of any particular problem in a field of scientific research work can lead to ever deepening insight into the function of and interactions between the phenomena that we observe in the physical world? Absolutely! Are these incompatible conclusions? Not in the least.

The importance of language for communicating, for expressing ideas and conveying what is intended to be conveyed, is enormous: there is no doubt about this. So great is it that it is far easier to be misunderstood or at least not well understood, than it is to actually succeed in making ourselves understood in the way we intended. Every research worker who has been to a conference, given and listened to presentations, and in that setting interacted with other research workers from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds knows how difficult it can be to express oneself in a way that ensures we can be understood, and how difficult it sometimes is to understand what others are trying to express and convey. Pushing this point to the extreme, we could conclude that we always only partially express what we want to convey, and always only partially understand what others are trying to convey. And yet, even if this is, in many ways, more of a tautology than something to be argued, we do succeed in conveying meanings, often of exceedingly high complexity and sophistication, especially in regards to a wide range of very technical scientific matters, that are understood by our peers, at least enough to continue the scientific dialogue and related research activities.

What about the way we function in our life outside of our research work: what do we believe about ourselves, about others, about the world and the universe? Do we believe in a God, a omnipotent or omniscient God, a benevolent God watching over us? Do we, as so many billions all over the globe, pray to our God for health and prosperity, for long life and success, for help and guidance through difficult decisions and difficult times, for a speedy recovery from illness, for our children, for our parents, for our brothers and sisters, for our cousins, uncles and aunts, for our friends? Do we believe in hell or in karma, in the existence of a soul, of an afterlife or in reincarnation? Do we believe that the societal rules of conduct defined by and through the religious and cultural frameworks that evolve within this society and that have been transmitted to us as they have to everyone else, have something inherently important, inherently fundamental, that they have something that inherently sets them above and beyond our ability or even our right to question their validity or just their practical usefulness? Do we believe that what we believe to be ethically right is actually right, and what we believe to be ethically wrong is actually wrong?

Do we question these beliefs that we hold? Do we question all of our beliefs and convictions? Do we recognise how strongly conditioned everything about our selves actually is? Do we recognise the extent to which this conditioning defines not only what we perceive, but also what we are actually able to perceive, what the way in which our attention is configured allows to perceive, irrespective of the actual biochemical and physiological function of the senses, nerve endings and central nervous system? Do we see what the eyes see, hear what the ears hear, feel the breathing of the body as it breathes, feel what the fingers and the skin all over the body actually feel? Or are all of these details ignored, overshadowed by our attention contracted and focused on some thought, feeling-tone or discursive conversation we are having with ourselves while going through the motions of doing what we do from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep, never actually consciously seeing, hearing, touching and feeling anything other than our thoughts, our stories, our memories and our most often recurring and almost always paralysing feeling-tones?

Can we be said to be scientists—actual scientists, real scientists, true scientist—if we don’t question into absolutely everything about the way we know and learn, sense and feel, perceive and cognise, imagine and believe, conceive of and conceptualise, recognise and interpret, and in the end, how we express anything at all? Can we be said to be scientists if we do not strive to reconcile into a coherent whole all of the knowledge, beliefs and information we hold about ourselves and the world in all of its forms? Do most scientists live in this way: questioning thoroughly and uncompromisingly into everything without any discrimination nor censorship? No, they don’t; definitely not. Does, in fact, any working scientist do this? Maybe one or two here and there, but without any doubt, very very few, vanishingly few. Could most scientists, all of them even, live in this way? Yes, indeed, they could.

How is it possible, for example, to spend a lifetime studying and trying to understand the inner workings of supermassive black holes and everything about them, their vicinity and their interaction with and influence on these surroundings, and yet never wonder what happens scientifically speaking—biochemically, physiologically, metabolically—when we take a sip of orange juice or Coca-Cola, when we take a bite of a sandwich or piece of pizza? Does it make sense to spend so much time thinking and considering certain things, and not others, which are to all practical purposes infinitely more important for the survival of this being as a living organism? Does this behaviour seem contradictory?

Well, it may to some when put in these terms, but it is nevertheless normal, it is the norm, the standard way in which we tend to behave and tend to be, not just amongst scientists but amongst everyone, or at least, practically everyone. This separation, this segmented, disconnected, fragmented life filled with piles of bits and pieces, shards and splinters which together seem to make up its entirety, and this remaining so without triggering any sense of awkwardness or that there is something fundamentally off about this painful lack of coherence and cohesion between all of these separately considered broken pieces that what we nonetheless, maybe by force of habit, call our life.

To be starkly truthful, isn’t this questioning into absolutely everything, not merely hypothetically, but practically, not merely once in a while and not merely with our thoughts, but with the whole body-mind in each and every moment, again and again, and over and over throughout life, what every thinking human being should do? Do most people live in this way? No, they don’t; definitely not. Does actually anyone live in this way? Surely some do, but here again there is no doubt that their numbers are also vanishingly small in the global human population. Could most people, everyone even, live in this way? Indeed, we could.

With all of this in mind, having cast such a light on the subject, what would we say about what it means to be a scientist? What would we say about what it means to be a thinking human being? What would we say about coherence and cohesion in our own life? And what would we say to Wittgenstein or Popper about their notions of ‘the scientist’, ‘the life of the scientist’ or ‘the language of the scientist’?

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