Monthly Archives: May 2012

How it Feels to be a Scientist

Science would seem to be the most logical and unemotional activity that a person could engage in. We calmly and dispassionately set up our experiments, analyze our data, and reach our conclusions that either confirm or refute our hypothesis. We also do many things, like develop tools and instruments, that do not directly address a hypothesis.

How could something so logical be tied to emotion and passion? But consider this: if you know a successful scientist, you might find that he or she works long hours and thinks a great deal about what he or she is doing. One might say that scientists are consumed by what they do. They might even appear to be passionate. Passion about something logical? What gives?

Passion is a driving force in science. For many scientists, the passion arises from the connection we make to the physical world. The connection feels strong and profound. Logic is the common language that unites us with the world we study. Logic is something humans understand deeply. It pervades the fabric of our thoughts, from the most mundane to the most exalted. The thrill of science comes from seeing how logic does its magic in the world. The language of logic that nature speaks creates amazing structure and beauty in the natural world.

A scientist may be sitting alone, ruminating on ideas and concepts about a particular thing such as the aurora borealis or a thunderstorm. There is something exhilarating about knowing that thinking can reveal new truths about the world around us. The reason this can happen is logic. By thinking I can learn a great deal about something I have never experienced. I can even learn about something that has never existed. By thinking, I can create something new in the world that is not at all obvious that it could be made. The reason this can happen is logic itself: by understanding logic, and starting with a few assumptions, new things come to be.

Connecting to such a powerful thing as our physical world feels amazing. It feels miraculous. It instills passion. So the long days and nights, and feelings of despair and exhilaration continue.


The Importance Of Emotion

In my last post (“The Limits Of Reason”, April 29) I discussed how reason is like a transportation device: it takes you from point A to point B. The points I refer to are the parts of a logical discussion. Reason begins with an assertion or statement, which is often arrived at without the use of reason. Given a set of assertions or statements, reason can work out their logical implications. However, reason itself is not “self-contained”. If we trace the logic of a discussion back to its source, we will find there are assertions and statements that are arrived at without a logical process.

What is the source of these “core” assertions? By core assertions, I mean the statements one starts with that form the foundation of the logical discussion.

Before answering that question, let’s relate this to science. As I state in my book, the scientific method starts with a hypothesis that is verified or refuted by experiment. How one obtains the hypothesis is not specified. In many cases, it is a guess (usually a well-educated guess). This very point has been made by the physicist Richard P. Feynman, one of the world’s preeminent scientists.

Now I’ll answer the question. Whether the assertion is related to science or other endeavors, the source of our most fundamental assertions is emotion. Believe it or not, this is also true in science. Scientists have been very successful believing in the simplicity of nature. They have unlocked key mysteries about quantum physics and fundamental forces by asserting that the answers must be simple and “symmetric”. Aesthetics, our emotional perception of beauty, plays a role also.

Finding a simple root cause that explains complex natural phenomena is emotionally satisfying. Belief in simplicity and aesthetics has led to scientific success. If our emotional orientation toward simplicity had not existed, we might have been less successful as a scientific species. A species with a different emotional makeup than our species might never have been successful scientifically.

Emotion is what delivers the core statements upon which logic is based. Emotion (including aesthetics) plays an important role in the progress of science. In the most fundamental scientific questions, emotion is an indispensable guide.

How do you feel about that?