• John
  • Felde
  • University of Maryland
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • USLHC
  • USLHC
  • USA

  • James
  • Doherty
  • Open University
  • United Kingdom

Latest Posts

  • Andrea
  • Signori
  • Nikhef
  • Netherlands

Latest Posts

  • CERN
  • Geneva
  • Switzerland

Latest Posts

  • Aidan
  • Randle-Conde
  • Université Libre de Bruxelles
  • Belgium

Latest Posts

  • TRIUMF
  • Vancouver, BC
  • Canada

Latest Posts

  • Laura
  • Gladstone
  • MIT
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • Steven
  • Goldfarb
  • University of Michigan

Latest Posts

  • Fermilab
  • Batavia, IL
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • Seth
  • Zenz
  • Imperial College London
  • UK

Latest Posts

  • Nhan
  • Tran
  • Fermilab
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • Alex
  • Millar
  • University of Melbourne
  • Australia

Latest Posts

  • Ken
  • Bloom
  • USLHC
  • USA

Latest Posts

Posts Tagged ‘BC’

Art and Science: Both or Neither

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

 

I don’t get it. I guess we just have different brains than them.” – two young science students, regarding a piece of art.

It’s a funny feeling, being an individual with a predominantly artistic mind working in a place dominated by science. I’m not saying I don’t have love for the sciences, but if we’re talking in terms of how my thought process lazily unfurls itself when faced with a problem, I’m definitely more of an artist than a scientist. The very fact that I have used the terms “scientist” and “artist” in a way that does nothing but reinforce the eternal dichotomy that exists between the two groups indicates that the problem is so widespread, indeed, that even the person trying to formulate an argument calling for a cessation of the “war” that exists between the two groups cannot avoid thinking of the two as incontrovertibly disparate.

 

A page from Leonardo da Vinci's famous notebooks. He remains one of the finest examples of an individual expanding his mind to take in both science and art.

 

The quote at the top is a real thing I heard. Aside from the disquieting use of “we” and “them,” the most troubling thing about the above assertion is the outright dismissal of the piece of art in question. The finality and hopelessness of the “Different Brain” argument does not seem ridiculous outright because it has been propagated by you (yes, you), me, and everyone else ever in the history of time when we don’t want to take the time to learn something new. Artists and scientists are two particular groups that use the Different Brain argument on one another all too often. In order to see the truly farcical nature that underlies the argument, picture two groups of early humans. One group has fire. The other group does not. One person from the fireless group is tasked with inventing fire for the group. The person in charge of making fire claps his hands; no fire is produced. He gives up, citing that he and his counterpart in the other group must have different brains. His group dies out because of their lack of fire.

I hope you followed the cautionary tale of our dismissive early human closely, for he is the rock I will build this post on. The reason one group died and the other thrived is quite obvious. It is not because they simply lacked fire; it is that they lacked the ability to extend their minds beyond their current knowledge in order to solve a problem. Moreover, they not only lacked the ability, they lacked the drive—a troubling trend that is becoming more pronounced as the misguided “war” between artists and scientists rages on, insofar as an intellectual war can rage.

If you were to ask a scientist what he or she would do when posed with a problem, the answer will invariably be something along the lines of, “I would wrestle it to the ground with my considerable intellect until it yields its secrets.” During my time at TRIUMF, I have noticed a deep, well-deserved pride in every scientist in their ability to solve problems. Therefore, it is truly a sad state of affairs when our scientists look at something that puzzles them and then look away. To me, that’s no scientist. That is someone who has grown too complacent, too comfortable, in the vastness of their knowledge that they begin to shy away from things that challenge them in a way they aren’t used to. What’s more is that no one (artists or scientists) sees this as a defeat. As soon as you’ve said, “Oh well, different brain,” you’ve lost.

Any person familiar with rhetoric will tell you that in order to build a strong argument and persuade people, you have to be honest. Be sneaky and fail to address something potentially damning and your credibility is shot and the argument is void. Since it works so well in politics (snark), I figure I should give is a shot here. The problem of the Different Brain argument does not just lay with the scientists; if I’ve excoriated them, it’s out of fear that soon, a generation of scientists will stop growing and thinking. The artists are guilty of invoking the Different Brain argument as well whenever faced with math, science, or anything, really, that they didn’t want to do. The only difference between the two is that I heard a scientist use the different brain argument in a place of science, in a place where knowledge is the point.

Different Brain is a spurious concept, which is obvious to anyone with more grey matter than pride, but it’s not just wrong because I say it is. It’s wrong because look around you.

I was standing in the middle of Whistler Village with my fiancé, when we spied a poster for a band called Art vs. Science (you’re doing it wrong, guys!). She immediately said, “Science would win.” No question. No pondering. No soul-searching. Gut reaction, like flinching from a feigned punch. She’s a statistics major and biology minor, so she has a “science” brain and her response didn’t necessarily surprise me. I was a little sad, though, because she wasn’t seeing the world like I was seeing it. We debated the problem for a few minutes until I told her to look around.

The shape of the buildings: Architecture

The pleasant configuration of the shrubbery: Horticulture

The signage on the buildings and lampposts: Design

The food in the bag in my hand: Cooking

The phone in her hand: Technology

I asked her to picture a world where science had “won”. What’s architecture without art? A shape. What’s horticulture without art? A forest. Design? A grid. Cooking? Paste. Technology? Sufficient. It’s a tough world to imagine. Look at the next thing you see and try to separate the science and art of it and imagine what it would look like, whether it would function at all. It’s absolutely dystopian.

It was then that my argument became clear: science and art are inextricable. There can be no dismissing, no deigning, no sighing in the face of it. There can only be and has only ever been unity between the two. The problem is that the two warring sides are too preoccupied with the connotations the words “art” and “science” seem to realize it’s not a question of either/or, but both/neither.

I was worried about whether this war of the different brains would always rage between the two sides, but three things lent me hope and I hope they will lend you hope, too.

1.)  These two quotes from Bertholt Brecht (20th century German playwright and poet, whose work I don’t much care for):

“Art and science work in quite different ways: agreed. But, bad as it may sound, I have to admit that I cannot get along as an artist without the use of one or two sciences. … In my view, the great and complicated things that go on in the world cannot be adequately recognized by people who do not use every possible aid to understanding.”

and

“Art and science coincide insofar as both aim to improve the lives of men and women.”

2.) I was feeling discouraged about my argument for this post and had taken to turning it over in my mind even when I was otherwise occupied, but when I heard Rolf Heuer, the Director-General of CERN, say, only a handful of feet from my face, “Science and Art belong together,” I felt a renewed sense of vigor course through my brain, spurring me on. If one of the foremost scientific experts of our age can see it, I wonder why many of us turn away from it, when it is clearly there.

3.) In case one thinks that I’ve gone too soft on the artists, imagine a world without science. Think of our society as a book of fiction or a painting. Unequivocal works of art. Yet, what holds the book together? How were the pages manufactured? How were the chemical composition of the paints devised? Science.

Keeping these points in mind, I am calling for the abolition of the concepts underpinning the Different Brain argument. The war between art and science is one of mutually assured destruction and will turn us into a lopsided simulacrum of a culture if we are not careful.

–Written by Jordan Pitcher (Communications Assistant)

Share

Before I began working at TRIUMF, I knew that science communication was a thing; much in the same way that I knew that there was someone, somewhere manufacturing tissue paper. It was just something that was. Reading an article in Scientific American or, to an extent, Wired, I never paused to consider who had written the article and what made an effective piece of science writing. I simply read it and moved on. Now that I have written a few articles that discuss science—nothing too long or in-depth, mind you—I have caught a glimpse of the harrowing plight of the science communicator and it is one fraught with frustration and self-doubt, but it is not without hope.

I, along with the majority of the communications team at TRIUMF, attended a talk at UBC called, “STORYOMICS: Proof that Scientists Evolved from Humans,” presented by scientist and documentary filmmaker, Randy Olson. I won’t go into too much detail about what he talked about because, to me, it was somewhat commonsensical. (Note: This may be because I’m an English major, whose sole purpose is to be painfully familiar with the components of a story.)

After the talk, a man named Dave Ng joined us for lunch. While we were chattering away, he said something that, initially, seemed like just an insightful observation. However, It has been ricocheting around in the damp recesses of my brain ever since. The observation was this: when news broke about the faster-than-light neutrinos, everyone covered it. Everyone. Of all the people who covered it, what percentage do you think knew—without reciting the Wikipedia entry for it from memory—what a neutrino actually was? Very few, I would bet. Judging from what I had read at the time, it seemed that everyone had reposted chunks of CERN/OPERA’s press release with bits of fluff around it to make it look like an original work. The main thrust of my scattershot thought process, the philosophical question that has me wandering the desert of my psyche looking for an answer is: can you ever effectively report on/write about something that you don’t have a deep knowledge of?

I used to write for a university newspaper and, while I did write about current events and physical fitness (which, if you know me, is not my forte), I gravitated towards the Arts and Life section. I wrote about books, movies, television, and video games.  What do all of these things have in common? I know about them. When I wrote about books, I was in my natural element because I understood the underlying principles that govern narrative and I knew the significance of things that the woefully uninitiated don’t pick up on (I once wrote an entire paper on the use of en and em dashes in a play, so don’t even dispute me on this). The writing was full of verve and wit (if I do say so myself). It had a confident, singular voice behind it. Confidence is the key to communicating anything effectively, but it is rare to find someone who is confident speaking about something they are not knowledgeable of. That’s why we see this paradigm: The head of the communications department at TRIUMF, Tim Meyer, is an excellent science communicator…who has a PhD in physics. Randy Olson is an effective science communicator…who has a PhD in biology. The list goes on: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, etc. The point is that there is no doubt that scientists can become communicators. Can communicators communicate science, though? That seems to be a point of contention for scientists and communicators alike.

Before we go any further, I should probably establish my credentials: My background in science is less than negligible. I took Physics 11 in high school and Biology 100 in university. One of my (many) problems is that I was born with the curiosity of a scientist but without any of the skills to back it up. My interest in science is what made the opportunity to work at TRIUMF so appealing. It promised the opportunity to write about science, which is something that scared me, still scares me.

I recently wrote about the controversy surrounding the CERN/OPERA faster-than-light neutrino experiment and I was nervous the entire time. The prose was shaky, too reliant on quotes, and meek. It was listless and gray, devoid of all effervescence or joie de vivre. It was a passable science article. I felt how I think many science communicators feel in the beginning: gutted. The lack of “myself” in the article called into question whether I could communicate effectively, or if I had ever done so.

Science communicators are in the enviable and rare position to be attacked from every angle: from scientists for not being thorough enough and from communicators for being boring and ineffective. Both parties are assailing disparate aspects of the work and no one is pleased. If you heard a funeral dirge in the back of your mind while reading this, prepare for the tinkling, inspirational piano number because, in my mind, there is hope. I’ve only been at TRIUMF for three months, but I already feel like I’ve learned a great deal about science communication.

1.)       Always collaborate, when possible, with someone who is deeply familiar with the science you are discussing. I know it’s easier to Google, but this is the Internet. I’m a doctor on the Internet. This way, when you cite your sources, you don’t have to cite Wikipedia, you can cite a professional, which will confer a lot of credence to whatever you wrote.

2.)       Metaphor is your new best friend. You already have a best friend? Too bad. You might not know the dictionary definition of metaphor, but humans have been using it forever (hyperbole) to communicate complex ideas to the many. The more complex the concept, the more important the metaphor becomes.

3.)       Don’t be afraid to imbue the work with a sense of style. This is what I see most often. People think that because something is about science, it needs to be antiseptic. It doesn’t. If you’re a communicator, you have a unique voice, or I hope you have, anyway.

With the modicum of experience that I have in communicating science, I realize I’m no professional—yet—and this is by no means an “answer” to the questions posed earlier. These points are, however, a jumping off point for people who may be thinking about communicating science, but are afraid it has to be the written or verbal equivalent of gruel. They are also for the people who are communicating science but it has become so mechanical for them that they can’t see themselves in their work anymore.

My time at TRIUMF lasts five more months, and the journey will, without a doubt, involve more frustration and failure in the face of this nigh-rhetorical question. Instead of gently weeping into that good night, I will use the words of Charles Kettering, an engineer I just Googled, to give me hope: “99 percent of success is built on failure.”

–Written by Jordan Pitcher (Communications Assistant)

 

Share

Powerless Haikus

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

Jordan is an English major on a Communications co-op term at TRIUMF. When the power went out at TRIUMF, he was asked to write about what it was like. He decided to write it in haiku. He had never written a haiku before. It showed.

I have never written a haiku before. After the power came on, I Googled haikus and these barely count.  Enjoy.

 

The power is out

There is nothing left to do

Except write haikus

 

Computers shut off

I forgot to save my work

Many strong expletives

 

Eyes raised to the ceiling

A brief respite from the screen

It is sunny out?

 

A brief argument

On the location of Spain

No one can Google

 

Two scientists turn

Engage in deep discussion

Or maybe shallow

 

Silent Meson Hall

Punctuated by a laugh

Cannot find the source

 

The power is back

I am Googling some haikus

Amateurish, I

— Written by Jordan Pitcher (Communications Assistant)

Share

This is a follow-up from our last post where Paul Schaffer, Head of the Nuclear Medicine Division at TRIUMF, was talking about his experience of being in the media spotlight. In this post, Paul talks more in-depth about the science of medical isotopes.

It all started 19 months ago. A grant that would forever change my perspective of science geared specifically toward innovating a solution for a critical unmet need—in this situation, it was the global isotope crisis. In 2010, not too long out of the private sector, I was already working on an effort funded by NSERC and CIHR through the BC Cancer Agency to establish the feasibility of producing Tc-99m—the world’s most common medical isotope—on a common medical cyclotron. The idea: produce this isotope where it’s needed, on demand, every day, if and when needed. Sounds good, right? The problem is that the world had come to accept what would have seemed impossible just 50 years ago.

The current Tc-99m production cycle, which uses nuclear reactors. Image courtesy of Nordion.

We are currently using a centralized production model for this isotope with just a six hour half-life. This model involves just a handful of dedicated, government-funded research reactors, producing molybdenum-99 from highly enriched uranium (which is another issue for another time). Moly, as we’ve come to affectionately call it, decays via beta emission to technetium, and when packaged into alumina columns, is sterilized, and encased in a hundred pounds of lead. It is then shipped by the thousands to hospitals around the world. The result: the world has come to accept Tc-99m, which is used in 85% of the 20 to 40 million patient scans every year as an isotope available from a small, 100 pound cylinder that was replaced every week or so, without question, without worry. Moly and her daughter were always there…but in 2007 and again in 2009, suddenly they weren’t. The world had come to realize that something must be done.

In the middle of our NSERC/CIHR effort, we were presented with an opportunity to write a proof-of-concept grant based on the proof-of-feasibility we were actively pursuing. Luckily, the team had come far enough to believe we were on the right track. We believed that large scale curie-level production of Tc-99m using existing cyclotron technology was indeed possible. The ensuing effort was—in contrast to the current way of doing things—ridiculous.

With extensive, continuous input from several top scientists from around the country, I stitched together a document 200 pages long. It was a grant that was supposed to redefine how the most important isotope in nuclear medicine was produced. 200 pages, well 199 to be exact, describing a process—THE process—we were hopefully going to be working on for the next 18 months. We waited…success! And we began.

The effort started the same way as the document – with nothing more than a blank piece of paper. Blank in the sense that we knew what we had to do, we just had not defined exactly how we were going to achieve our goal. But what happened next was a truly remarkable thing; with that blank sheet, I witnessed first-hand a team of people imagine a solution, roll up their sleeves and turn those notions into reality.

If you would like to read the PET report, click here

 

 

Share

Paul Schaffer is the head of the Nuclear Medicine Division at TRIUMF. For the past 18 months, he and his team have been devising a method for Canada and the world to have an alternative way to produce medical isotopes. Currently, these isotopes are created on aging nuclear reactors, which are beginning to show signs of wear by needing emergency repairs. These repairs stop the flow of isotopes, affecting hundreds of thousands of people around the world. This is an inside perspective of what it means to work on the front line, and be in the media spotlight.

I’m going to start this post with the day I had the privilege of standing in front of a group of reporters along with a few of my esteemed colleagues to announce that we had, in fact, delivered on a promise we had made just over a year ago; the promise of making medical isotopes with existing hospital cyclotrons. We had set out to prove that it was possible to produce Tc-99m on a small medical cyclotron and at quantities sufficient to supply a large urban centre. The solution to Tc-99m shortages is to decentralize production. It was an example of Canadian innovation at its best – by taking a group of existing machines in existing facilities already tasked at making various other medical isotopes and extending the functionality of those facilities to produce another isotope.

Paul presenting his team's findings

The response from the press was remarkable to witness. The interest was swift, broad, and far reaching. The 24-hour news cycle had begun and with it came a deluge of requests for radio, TV, and print interviews. In the ensuing days I read a number of wonderful reports from capable reporters, often writing about a topic well outside of their background or familiarity. For that, I admire the work that they collectively pulled together in the short amount of time involved.

Something else happened, though; something I didn’t anticipate – the ensuing media blitz ended up becoming a very personal social experiment, an intense self-examination. On the way to my first-ever national television interview, I can distinctly remember reality sinking in—for most of my life, I’ve dealt with significant hearing loss. In my ever-quiet world, acutely and perpetually punctuated by tinnitus, verbal communication can be a consuming task.

It is a fact that I comprehend only 33% of the words spoken to me and that my brain fills the gaps using whatever facts it can absorb from my surroundings—expressions, moving lips, and other non-verbal cues. In that car on the way to the interview, I couldn’t help but to continuously wonder about how I would handle verbal questions on camera? What do you say on live TV when you can’t for the life of you figure out what your conversational counterpart is saying? My wingman kept reassuring me, giving background from experience and many, many reassuring comments; but deep down I had to wonder, was this the moment when the whole situation would finally come undone? My charade of being able to hear the world around me would finally end. Worse still, had the moment come to sell the team’s amazing accomplishments on national TV, with a significant number of people literally watching; and all I kept wondering was: will it fall apart simply over an unheard or misinterpreted question? Good thing most communication is non-verbal.

The interview ended up being remote, with the reporters in Ontario and a conspicuous 5 second ‘safety’ delay between what I thought I heard and what showed up on the TV monitor facing me. Five seconds was long enough for them to cut out a fleeting wardrobe malfunction, should I become a bit too passionate during my scientific descriptions, but not nearly long enough to spare a poor soul a repeat question. So, seated in a large, empty, and thankfully quiet studio it began with a single chair, bright lights, and an audio test – ‘please count to 5’ came in over the ear piece…this out of context and no non-verbal queue jolted my fear into reality. I couldn’t understand the question. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my wingman turn a shade lighter. Worry was setting in. The in-studio producer was almost dumbstruck – this ‘expert’ couldn’t count to five.  45 seconds to ‘go’ and he repeated the question. I got it, counted to five….30 seconds….15, an ambulance was coming, getting louder, I couldn’t hear the commercial any longer…..10, the ambulance was on the street directly below. I had to look away from the TV screen, as the delay was overwhelmingly distracting. 5 seconds. The sirens were starting to recede and before you knew it, I was live.

Paul on CTV News

At first I didn’t want to watch the interview, but family, friends and colleagues from across Canada starting chiming in and eventually convinced me to watch. I felt satisfied with the results, relieved that I had heard every question, answered everything without wandering or forgetting what the question was, covering the topics I wanted to cover. However, I was definitely watching an objective projection of somebody I wasn’t familiar with. I won’t get into the details of what I saw – it’d be different for everyone, but the experience has been life altering, as has this project. That said, I’m proud of the team that has worked so well and so hard together for the past 18 months. It’s been a remarkable project on all fronts. Whether our results continue to keep their momentum and become a permanent solution to the isotope issues that plagued us for two years remains to be seen. I do know success when I see it, and this team of Canadian scientists, engineers, and medical professionals should all be immensely proud of what they have done. They are Canadian innovation at its best.

The team of TRIUMF scientists Paul collaborated with on the groundbreaking project

 

Share

My Time at AAAS 2012

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Jordan is an English major on a Communications co-op term at TRIUMF. This is his take on the AAAS conference that took place this February in Vancouver. AAAS is a conference that gathers researchers from around the world from all disciplines to share ideas with each other, the media, and the public.

It is difficult to write about any event, be it a concert or a science convention, without slipping into a pattern that resembles a mad-lib (e.g. “I saw noun and it was adjective!”). In order to avoid that particular pitfall, it’s important to focus on the individual connection one forges with the event, the broader implications of the event, and the emotions evoked by it. AAAS 2012 was, surprisingly, an event suffused with emotion. I say “surprisingly” because “science” is a word that carries with it the connotation of a stodgy atmosphere built upon cold rationalism. Despite this, the atmosphere at AAAS 2012 was built on anything but.

AAAS 2012 began on a typical (see: rainy) Friday morning in Vancouver, but the mood inside the exhibit hall was in stark contrast to the gloom outside. Though it was quite early in the morning and a number of exhibitors were frazzled and silently checking and rechecking their to-do lists, the hall quickly became characterized by laughter and discussion. People dropped by booths asking after old friends they had previously worked with, smiling at the old memories and the assurances that their friends were doing well. People who knew each other only by reputation met on the floor of the exhibit hall and traded stories about their current projects and experiments. People who did not know one another perused booths, asked questions, handed out business cards, and walked away deep in thought. The entire exhibit hall was a microcosmic example of the scientific community as a whole; a community fueled by curiosity, collaboration, camaraderie, and a friendly sense of competition. Though Friday was not open to the public, there were still a number of unique visitors, particularly American Junior Academy of Science (AJAS) members to students who had registered for student scholarships through TRIUMF and the BC Innovation Council (BCIC). These students were given a full conference pass and a one-year membership to AAAS. The AJAS members and student scholarship recipients displayed a sense of curiosity and mental alacrity befitting the next generation of scientists as they interacted with one another and the ideas presented at numerous booths.

The free public event, Family Science Days, opened on Saturday and it made the excited atmosphere of Friday seem funereal. The enthusiastic chatter of the children who attended Family Science Days with their parents in tow created the feeling only generated by like-minded individuals, radically diverse in ages and backgrounds, interacting with one another without any sense of pretension or disingenuousness. It was an interesting example of how science has the power to unify people. This is fitting, since the theme of the conference was  “Flattening the World: Building a Global Knowledge Society.” To me, the theme of the conference was fully realized when I looked around and saw the old educating the young and the young inspiring the old with a vigor for attempting to understand the unknown and a heavy reliance on the words “why” and “how.” I’m sure this brought a smile to every scientist’s face, knowing that the inquisitiveness that has spurred scientific discovery for thousands of years remains an inextinguishable human trait that will always express itself, irrespective of one’s age or background.

In describing the emotions I witnessed, I have neglected to mention the emotions I experienced during my time at AAAS 2012. Being an exhibitor, I suspect I felt more stress than many of the regular attendees. It wasn’t like being stressed about exams; it was more like unveiling a piece of art and stressing about whether people would enjoy it – more butterflies than flop sweat. As my comrades—wartime slang is perfectly appropriate in this situation, I think—and I began to entertain visitors with magnet demonstrations and educate them about cyclotrons, the worry dissipated and gave way to excitement. People were enjoying our booth and I got to test the boundaries of my memory, attempting to recount the entire Wikipedia page for “Cyclotrons” and “Higgs boson.” I’m not a scientist—far from it, in fact—but I enjoyed the lively discussions and even managed to actually learn a thing or two in the process.

 

Share

Gabriel’s Notebook: The Last Week

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

– By Gabriel Stewart, visiting PIMS student

Day 1

The beginning of the week was a Tuesday because of BC day. I love those holidays but it took one day out of my blog >:(  Anyways… on Tuesday, I met the boss LeRoss (aka Theresa LeRoss, a cool 20-year-old). She took me on a tour of the M20 beam line where they’re re-building a beam line. The beam lines all over the lab bring particles from the cyclotron to the experiments. She explained how the beam lines are laid out and aligned, then we set up a level and theodolite in ISAC-I.

Gabriel with "the boss LeRoss" and the M20 beam line

Day 2

This week was short and it’s my last week here. In memory that I was here, I helped lay out a grid with chalk. We were checking how level the floor is for some equipment they’ll put there. I also scraped off rust steel door frames.  Hahahaha boss Leross, don’t worry I had fun and I don’t mind doing that stuff for my last week. It was fun spending time with a laid back type of girl…..woman….girl that can get her stuff done easily. Even if she doesn’t think she is an adult, I think she is very mature in a good way, so that makes you an adult boss Leross :). Well that’s it; I’m done here. This is Gabe signing off—hopefully I’ll be back next year! And I still say it beats staying home and doing nothing on the computer.  🙂 Bye!

Share

– By Byron Jennings, (Ex) Theorist (or is it: once a theorist, always a theorist…) and Project Coordinator

Thomas Kuhn (1922 – 1996) began his career as a physicist but then, as a post-doc, went over to the dark side and became a philosopher. It is for his work on the dark side that he became famous. Normally one assumes that when a scientist starts doing philosophy it is a sign of senility, but in his case it was too early in his career and his insights were actually useful (Yes, philosophy can be useful). His main contribution, in my opinion, was his introduction of the idea of the paradigm. A paradigm is the set of interlocking assumptions and methodologies that define a field of study. It provides the foundation for all work in the field and a common language for discourse. It is the fundamental model for the field and in historical studies is sometimes referred to as the controlling narrative.

If you’ve ever heard the phrase ‘paradigm change,’ you would think that all paradigms do is change. But the idea of the paradigm is actually subversive – it helped undermine the “received view” of what science is and still undermines experimentalist’s attempts to eliminate theory (Which can’t be done, by the way!). Full disclosure: I am, or rather was, a theorist. Administration is even farther to the dark side than philosophy.

The concept of paradigm was introduced in contradistinction to the ideas of positivism that defined the “received view”. The positivists tried to work directly with observations and eliminate all metaphysics or model dependence. Kuhn, on the other hand, claimed the observations themselves are theory laden or model dependent.  You cannot, as a matter of principle, eliminate the metaphysics because the observation, or at least their interpretation, depends on the theory, model, or paradigm.  The paradigm sets the frameworks that gives meaning to the observations and frames the very questions that are considered worthy of addressing.  Examples of paradigms would be Aristotelian physics, classical physics, the standard model of particle physics, or the modern synthesis of evolution.

While paradigms do more than change but they do indeed change and when they do all—oops I cannot say that!—all heck breaks loose. Things one thought one knew and could rely on suddenly go poof. This going ‘poof’ was what the positivists tried and failed to get around by eliminating the models and working directly with the observations.

As Einstein (I like name dropping) pointed out, when paradigms change, it tends to be the most central parts of the previous paradigm that are eliminated. In Aristotelian physics, it was the fixed earth and the perfect heavens that Galileo destroyed with his telescope. Classical mechanics is built on Euclidean three-dimensional space and well-defined trajectories. Special and general relativity eliminated Euclidean geometry, and string theory, if correct, means space is not three-dimensional. Quantum mechanics eliminated the well-defined trajectories. This still causes some people sleepless nights but does not bother me since most of the time I do not know where I am or where I am going anyway. Evolution wrecked havoc with the concept of species. Before continental drift was accepted, a central concept of geology was the fixed continents. The examples are endless.

A side effect of this is that one cannot depend on the contents of the present theories or models to have any direct connection with reality.  The ether (electromagnetism), caloric (heat), phlogiston (fire), and mal air (medicine) that at one time were essential parts of the understanding of how the universe works were eliminated by new improved models. There is no guarantee that the contents of the current models will not be similarly eliminated.  Maybe we will find quarks disappearing or more likely, time, since it is apparently more fundamental.

So what is science and what is it good for if the basic concepts keep changing?  Well now, that is a good question.

 

– to be continued –

 

Share