I like to remind my theorist colleagues that Swedish engineer Gideon Sundback, who invented the zip, made a bigger intellectual leap than most of us ever willby Martin Rees / January 29, 2020 / Leave a comment
The word “scientist” still tends to conjure up an image of an Einstein lookalike—an unkempt figure (usually male, white and elderly)—or else a youthful geek (also probably white and male) or, in 10 Downing Street, a “super-talented weirdo.” But when it comes to intellectual—as distinct from gender and racial—diversity, there is a surprising mix.
I have spent a lifetime in science, and realise “outsiders” regard it as an inaccessible world. But if they realised that our modes of thinking aren’t especially strange—and that one doesn’t need to understand the technical details to appreciate the key ideas—they might be more inclined to engage with us.
The sciences encompass a vast range of expertise and styles; they can be pursued by speculative theorists, lone experimenters, ecologists gaining data in the field, and industrial-style teams working on giant particle accelerators. Some aspire to write a pioneering paper; others a definitive monograph. Just like individual sports, each particular science has its methods and conventions. But while the fascination of the individual discovery may be what fires all our interests, it is wrong to imagine there is some singular “scientific” way of unearthing these.
Scientists are believed to follow a distinctive procedure: the “scientific method.” This should be downplayed. They proceed through similar rational steps as (say) lawyers or detectives in categorising phenomena, forming hypotheses, testing evidence. A related (damaging) misperception is that there is something especially elite about the quality of their thought. “Academic ability” is one facet of the far wider concept of intellectual ability—possessed in equal measure by the best lawyers, engineers and politicians.
Indeed, the great ecologist EO Wilson avers that to be effective in some scientific fields it’s actually best not to be too bright! He’s not disparaging the insights and eureka moments that punctuate (albeit rarely) scientists’ working lives. But, as the world expert on thousands of ant species, Wilson’s research involved decades of hard slog: armchair theorising is not enough. A great mind won’t get you to the top without hard work.
It’s important to realise, if you want to succeed in a scientific career, that only cranks and geniuses tackle the great problems head-on. Aspiring scientists shouldn’t swarm into the unification of cosmos and quantum, even if it is an…