ARCHIVED - NRC Scientists Discuss their Work (Part 2)

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October 05, 2005— Ottawa, Ontario

Onion culture.

It's been said that scientific discoveries don't begin with the fabled "Eureka!" but rather with... "Now, that's funny... " [1]

To test this statement and to shed more light on the nature of science and scientific discoveries, NRC Highlights recently e-mailed a series of questions to NRC researchers whose work we have profiled over the past three years as part of the monthly Highlights.

About this article

We hope you enjoy reading this monthly installment of a 3 part series to appear in upcoming issues of NRC Highlights.

Each article will present the remarkable responses we received, a number of which are cited here. The answers are often candid and don't shy away from making some broad statements.

  • Part 1 (September 2005)
  • Part 2 (October 2005)
  • Part 3 (November 2005)

Perhaps being overly pessimistic, in the e-mail, we raised the possibility that for many people science is like something like a black box, the kind that investigators examine after a plane crash. Non-experts know that there is important information contained in the box, but perhaps they are unsure of how it got there and how to interpret it.

Using this metaphor, we asked NRC scientists to share their thoughts about what happens around that famous "Now that's funny... " moment and what this means for discovery. In a series of highly non-scientific open-ended questions we raised issues such as: how science evolves; how new scientific fields are created; how scientists deal with these shifting changes, and the role of the scientific method vs. just plain intuition.

Scientific Discovery - There is no Road Map

A second group of questions asked researchers to consider the nature of scientific discovery. How are discoveries "made"? Why does it always seem that the results are so random and unexpected?

This is the world's first image of 3D atomic-level structure as revealed by neutron holography.

It seems logical to believe that science and scientific discovery can be managed with a high degree of control. Yet, even a cursory scan of the history of science suggests that scientific investigations often lead in completely unexpected directions. Science and scientific discoveries lead where they will. We posed a number of questions to explore the nature of this serendipity. All responses underlined the need to remain open and receptive to chance events as they unfold in the lab and to try and understand whether they are meaningful.

Selected responses are contained below.

"If you are getting nothing but the expected results you are not doing science, you are doing development."

"Often, when one starts a scientific investigation with some long-term focused view, one stumbles upon curiosities along the way that turn out to have greater significance than the original goal."

"15 years ago we saw some funny results on a petri plate that were clearly unrelated to what we were trying to study. However, they were interesting, so we tried to understand what was going on. The answer developed a field that has directed the lab for the next 15 years and generated our international reputation."

"Science is like a big construction site. New parts might be added and may be important but what has already been there is also very important to the structure and can also be built upon. What is important is the judgment to see how things are going and how it fits together, then you can judge what is more or less meaningful."

"New disciplines are created between the old ones and not in a vacuum."

"One always builds on work that preceded you. Again, it is no different than in art. Picasso builds on all of the artistic tradition that preceded him. He is a great artist because he added to that tradition. Just to re-emphasize this point --- we all would agree that Picasso added to European art, not Oriental art. It is no different in science. Even Einstein built on previous ideas. Even he did not work in a vacuum. He knew what questions to ask because of previous science."

"I find the new areas of research always the most exciting. Perhaps all is not known about the new discipline but there is enough background framework that a general direction is seen and frequently a large amount of new ideas and discoveries can happen along the way. You base the research on beginning with some basic experiments that get you familiar on how things work then refine the work to the point that your long term targets get reached."

"Most new research areas are not welcomed! If an important discovery is made by a previously unknown researcher, most likely his/her work will be ignored or, occasionally, attacked. Only when someone well-known and respected in the scientific community endorsed the new research (which usually does not happen without considerable effort by the scientist(s) responsible for the new research), will it gain wider acceptance. Otherwise, the ideas are 're-discovered' later - usually by others not aware of the original source."

"The chance of people coming with the same idea is increased, as they are also fed with the same background information. Even back to the time of Newton, it still happened that he and his contemporaries independently invented calculus around the same time, something totally new but its arrival was demanded by the need of better mathematical method in the advances of planetary studies."

By now, you probably have some questions and thoughts as well. NRC Highlights tries to interest "sci curious" readers and we would like to know what you thought of this second installment. Was it interesting? Did it help you better understand some of the underlying issues around scientific investigation? What are your views? Let us know what you think by filling out the feedback form below!


[1]"The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, "hmmm... that's funny... " Issac Asimov

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