A mad scientist

Albert Einstein’s contribution to science and society is huge. A revolutionary genius. A ‘stuck in the mud’ that held paradigm shifting science back. A political meddler. 

His influence continues today and in one area it repulses me. He has become the archetype mad scientist. Crazy hair, thick glasses, foreign accent and lab coat – even though two of those are untrue. If you get a kid to draw a picture of a scientist they will mostly likely draw a mad scientist. I’ve lost track of how many schools I’ve visited having a science day where kids and staff alike are dressed as mad scientists or characters from TV’s The Big Bang Theory. I’m the only normal looking person in the room.

But we’re not like this. The mad scientist stereotype is harmful to the profession. Scientists become both a social joke and elite superhumans at the same time. So why are we propagating this when we want to enthuse the pupils in the subject?

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A magical mindset

A common model for how science works is that we observe something, think about how it works which then leads to a testable prediction. If the prediction proves correct the theory stands and if it doesn’t the theory is modified before retesting. Iterate until the theory is a good model for reality – a map of the world to help us navigate. All very methodical, clinical and, dare I say it, boring.

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Science does not work this way. Science is messy. Scientists are messy. History is littered with new discoveries that have come from surprises, accidents and mistakes. Untested theories accepted for centuries. Theories and predictions popping up before the experiments are there to back them up. New discoveries coming from theoreticians playing with neat maths concepts. Discoveries from asking the powerful question I wonder what if…? And then going out to look to see if this predictive what if is to be seen.

We do science students a disservice by only teaching the methodical approach starting with observation. Innovation comes from being observant, being playful and asking questions. Not necessarily in that order. Innovation comes from making mistakes, going off piste and being bold. Innovation isn’t always smooth and progressive. It’s both tediously slow and breathtakingly fast. Marathons and sprints. Endurance and adventure.

We do science students a disservice by teaching a certain, safe and static science. At the core of the scientific method is an adventure fuelled by curiosity and a willingness to adapt, evolve and improve. To be innovative you need to be comfortable with mystery and risk. On the front line there isn’t certainty. And on the front line you’re sticking your neck out. Publish a new paradigm shifting idea and your name is on the paper for the world to see. If you’re correct then you’re a genius. If not, you’re a crank. The difference between a Nobel Prize and unemployment is experimental data.

We do science students a disservice by teaching them THE answer rather than the questions and the questioning attitude. A powerful question is worth more than a thousand answers. Science isn’t a Rubik’s cube that can be neatly solved. There are multiple configurations and angles it can be viewed from. This isn’t nauseating post-modernism but at science’s core – the dual reality springing from both quantum mechanics and relativity killed off the predictable clockwork universe. There can be multiple solutions or descriptions that are all correct. By giving an answer too quickly we stifle creative thinking and offer students fast food snacks rather than a wholesome feast.

We do science students a disservice by teaching an emotionless humanless science. Yes we need intellectual rigour but that doesn’t have to be at the expense of the joy and awe (and sometimes repulsion) of new discovery. Science is a story of people discovering things. Story is powerful for both engagement and memory. By eliminating the human element we lose these benefits. On the flip side there is a danger of promoting some scientists into demigods that no student can ever aspire to be like.

In my work I want to promote a mindset that embraces:

  • Mystery
  • Surprise
  • Wonder
  • Play
  • Risk
  • Questions