To Be a Scientist 3/21/22

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

This post is inspired not by an article so much as its title.  Reading the BBC news, they had an article entitled “I had no idea what it means to be a scientist.”  Apparently, the article was written by some nuovo adult who decided to explore something that I really wasn’t very interested in, but the concept of what makes a scientist I found interesting enough to, well, write a blog about it.

First of all, a scientist isn’t a biologist.  I say this because a lot of people seem to limit the definition of science to biology, and while, yes, biology is a science, it’s not the only science.  I’ve known biology faculty that seem to believe that it is, but that’s just not reality.  Yes, there is matter in biology, and yes, there is energy in biology, but the focus is not on the chemistry and physics.  To say biology is chemistry is akin to saying a carpenter can do masonry work because they’re both building things. 

So, what is science?  What does it take to be a scientist?  I have a good friend who is a fabulous scientist.  She doesn’t believe that she is because she doesn’t have a fancy college degree, she didn’t take a lot of science classes and so on.  So, in the opinion of THIS scientist, what makes HER a scientist? 

First of all, she has an innate curiosity.  She is excellent about observing the world around her and asking a lot of questions.  She loves photography, especially of eagles, and as such has made many observations about them.  But it’s more than that; she asks questions.  She’s constantly teaching me things I didn’t know, like that they all have white heads, but they develop in time.  I thought only the males had the white feathers.

But it’s not just eagles.  She is constantly asking me questions about the world around us, some of which I know, many of which I don’t.  When I don’t know, she finds out.  That’s a big part of what science is.  It’s asking questions and seeking answers.  But that’s not all.

The first three steps in the scientific method are to observe, postulate, and seek answers.  Many questions have been previously asked, and scientists don’t like wasting their time seeking answers that have already been figured out, but believe it or not, the sum total of all human knowledge is nowhere near the total knowledge possible.  When she cannot find the answer, she’ll look for it.  She’s also an experimentalist to try to figure things out.  That’s a scientist. 

And she reports her findings.  She has taught me about Eagles.  She teaches her grandchildren and opens them up to discovery.  I love that she makes it okay for her grandkids (and children) to not know, to experiment, to explore and to ask questions. 

Her curiosity, like that of a scientist, goes well beyond science.  She has encouraged me to go to the WWI museum about three hours from where I live.  She has curiosity about art and music, history, culture, society and more.  If you want to know what it’s like to be a scientist, it means having curiosity outside of your own wheelhouse. 

If you go to a university and walk into the office of a variety of faculty, I’m willing to bet that you’ll find books about a far greater diversity of topics in a science professor’s office than most others.  To be a scientist means to have curiosity about more than just one thing.  I used to have textbooks on chemistry, art, English, literature, just about anything that you can imagine.  I think it’s because your typical scientist is curious about just about everything, including the entire human condition.  I used to read scientific publication on “econophysics”, the application of quantum theory to economic questions.  The idea of using such diverse concepts to solve problems is another example of what science is about.  Quantum theory itself is sometimes called “wave mechanics” because it’s the application of wave physics to explain subatomic particles.  Concepts from one discipline as applied to something vastly different, and seemingly unrelated is what gives science its power.

Sadly, as a society we tend to squelch curiosity and make fun of people who ask questions.  I think it’s a shame.  But if you are the kind of person who is curious about the world around you, who can become mesmerized by little things like the rings inside of a water glass as you tap the outside of it, who can spend hours looking at the shadow of an eclipse through the shadows cast by the leaves of a tree, then, like it or not, you, too, are a scientist.

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