Wandering into the Scientific Woods

Sometimes in an upper-level class I’ll assign a problem I don’t expect students to solve. It either involves some subtle trick, or requires theoretical techniques they haven’t yet learned. I assign them because I want students to struggle a bit with problems for which the solutions aren’t clear. “Wander into the woods,” I’ll tell them. “Find out what it feels like to be lost and start struggling to find your way out.” It’s a good skill to develop, because often in theoretical research you spend time struggling for a solution, and the answer isn’t in the back of a book.

As scientists we learn to wander off into the scientific woods. The great unknown as it were. Most of us only wander a few feet in, careful to always keep looking back at the clearing. A few bold souls wander deeper into the dark, and return with a treasure of discovery. Revolutionary theories come from these clever adventurers. But occasionally someone will wander deep into the woods, never to return to the clearing. Eddington sought a theory where experimental evidence came second to mathematical elegance. Einstein searched for his own fundamental theory, but never found it. Halton Arp went off in search of an alternative to cosmic redshift. Fred Hoyle walked so deep into the woods of his theory that not even observational evidence could draw him out.

Many of the “fringe” theories we see are inspired by the work of those who’ve wandered deep into the woods. The vast majority of these models have little going for them, and we should be clear to point out when models are contradicted by experimental and observational evidence. But it’s worth noting that walking into the woods is a part of our humanity that makes us good scientists. We strive to reach into ignorance and pull out knowledge. Often it works, and little by little we become a wiser species. But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes even very smart and very skilled scientists get lost.

Notes:

Folksonomies: discovery exploration science

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Scientific method (0.956675): dbpedia | freebase
Science (0.931884): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Theory (0.723257): dbpedia | freebase
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 Into the Woods
Electronic/World Wide Web>Internet Article:  Koberlein, Brian (10/28/2014), Into the Woods, Retrieved on 2014-10-29
  • Source Material [medium.com]
  • Folksonomies: science exploration