I just read that the actors of the TV show The Big Bang Theory are getting a pay-rise. They will earn around 1 million euros per episode. This is over 20 years of my current salary as researcher. The actors have definitively great talent and the show is a great funny but at the end they are playing roles based on the life of researchers like me. Could they create a foundation to help science?
Paradoxically my registration to social networks have been motivated by my professional life. I registered in Facebook because I was organizing a public talk. A recent grant application form asks about a website. I decided to buy the domain name www.astrowing.eu. I was first surprised that the domain has not been used before. Also I am glad I can use the eu instead of a country since I do feel I live in Europe. I will keep this blog site alive since it has hosted my first blogs for free.
A major aspect of my work as astrophysicists and leisure involves reading and writing. Reading and writing reports, scientific articles, press releases, emails, blogs. Like many I was struggling in putting in words my thoughts, especially in English, which is not my native language. But as the american philosopher Ayn Rand said: “Writing is no more difficult a skill than any others, such as engineering. Like every human activity, it requires practice and knowledge. But there is nothing mystical about it. Any person who can speak English grammatically can learn to write nonfiction.”. Many of my initial blockages have been lifted after reading her excellent book The Art of Nonfiction. The book is probably the best aid I found to help me improve my writing skills. Ayn Rand did not only talk about the technical aspects of nonfiction writing, she also analyzed the psychological struggle faced by aspiring writers. Nonfictions are about conveying ideas and thus the main motto of her book “clarity, clarity, clarity” summarizes perfectly her approach to nonfiction writing.
Things are never completely settled. I thought that after a PhD and a few articles I would be a seasoned researcher until I discussed with someone with a dual degree in astrophysics and philosophy. That troubled me. Did I miss something essential during all those years? Two aspects of philosophy of science intrigued me. One deals with the scientific method itself. The other is the meaning of scientific discoveries and their relations to the society. Strangely, according to my philosopher friend, researchers become interested in philosophy of science towards the end of their career or even when they are retired. Her guess is that most scientists are interested but are too engulfed in their daily science activities to have time to think about the how and why of their work. A notable exception is herself, being an active researcher and thinking about science. She may be among the only few in astronomy who actually deserves the title of “Doctor in philosophy” (PhD). She suggested a few books to read for me. They are since part of my daily leisure reading. I read those books as if they are novels in my spare time. In fact they can be entertaining if well written.
The first was Kuhn's book on “The structure of scientific discoveries”, on which I wrote
an extensive review. I highly recommend “An introduction to the philosophy of science” by Anthony O'Hear. The first sentence from O'Hear's book sets the issue: “There is no institution in the modern world more prestigious than science. Nor is there an institution which, as a whole, is less controversial”. Is controversy the cost to pay for prestige? If science and technology advances bring both, it is important that the practitioners are aware of that. I talk about technological advances because the perception of the general population about science is through technological advances, either good in improving their quality of life, or bad such as more sophisticated and deadly weapons. The last chapter deals with science and culture and the ethics of science. What drive intelligent scientists to work for military research? O'Hear summarizes at the end of the book: “... the essential differences between science and the humanities and, by implication, the essential nature of science as aiming at objective and value-free knowledge of the natural world, ...”
After reading both books, I feel a bit relief. It seems that I learned how to perform day-to-day science by mimicking colleagues and following advices from senior researchers without a formal course or reading books on philosophy of science. But reading more on the subject of philosophy of science can only be beneficial. And I endeavor myself to find time and have a step back to think about science. Perhaps we should introduce philosophy courses for all science students. Perhaps we should have more discussions among us the scientists on subjects beyond the technical aspects of our research (the “normal” science according to Kuhn).
The skeleton of an old woman has been found 7 years after her death, not in an isolated house in a small village. No, she was found in an apartment block in town. She died alone and isolated. Studies show that more and more people suffer from loneliness despite modern communication technology. Worst, the isolated people are most of the time those without access to the latest communication devices. This is true in France, it is even more the case in Germany where many choose to live alone. But the loneliest country in Europe is UK (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/27/anyone-can-die-alone-isolated-age-uk-loneliest-country).
Family, colleagues, and friends are important for the social network that makes you feel that you are part of groups. How is it that up to 20% of the population claims to feel isolated in France? Some choose to stay away from their family. Some have difficulty in finding friends in a modern society where we are always busy, aren't we? I have learn that I have to make the first move to break the ice because many have prejudices when they see me like "You speak very well French for a Chinese.". In fact I am quite fluent in French! Living alone may be a choice. But loneliness is not.
Education of children is one of the most sensitive issues in our societies. Every parent is concerned and every parent has his or her own view. That makes consensus difficult. Debates on education also reflect the state of the society in a country. Divides that exist can be amplified to the extreme. In France a recent discussion involves the education about boys and girls. The basis ideas were to teach children against the usual prejudices against women. One may think that there should not even have been a discussion in a country like France. But this is unfortunately the case. France has a very strong conservative basis. I already blogged about my view on how science and the society would be much better with more women in high decision levels. The French government seems to back track his previous proposition to add the course. I am quite disappointed.
One stressful human activity is definitively moving since our societies are mostly sedentary. Moving to the same country is already complicated, moving abroad to a town and country where we have never lived before is almost an adventure. What is the best occasion to write about moving than being in the process myself and helping a couple of friends all within two months and sitting in the train back to Grenoble. Life of a non-tenure researcher is made of uncertainties, moving around, and hopping from contract to contract. As I wrote in a previous blog I always strive to make the best out of it. One thing I have learned is not get attached to objects since the less one posses the easier is to move. Internet has made being in a foreign country less difficult. One can stay connected to your family and friends although for each move I miss the new friends I have made in Grenoble. Paradoxically I would never had met them at the first place if I have not moved. Likewise I would not meet many of them if they have not moved to Grenoble. When I list the places I would go if I was going to visit my friends and relatives I realize that I can visit so many places in the world on every continent.
All my books, music, movies, or pictures can be transported with a hard drive. Two (large) bags are all I (almost) need to move my clothes. Even that, a move would make a good opportunity to renew entirely a garderobe. Others like to be surrounded by objects that remind them the places and people they left. Once I got ride of my novels to charity shops. Those with a partner and family face many others issues. But I am glad that I can still manage the "two luggage" move. I will be happy to move to a new country and settle there if I meet the right person.
When I read in the news about those who died while looking for a better life in Europe, I am relief that my moves are pleasant in comparison (even if I have to help moving 50 boxes). I am lucky sitting in a comfortable train writing the blog.
I do not usually read The Economist magazine. One may agree or not with the editorial standpoint of the magazine but it provides weekly international news contrary to national publications except the Courier international in France. The science section contains articles both on the latest scientific developments and on science politics and sociology. On the June 14th issue an article (“Let the light shine in, The Economist June 14th 2014) was devoted to the new trend of open review triggered by the heated discussion that has followed two recent big research news.
The way to ensure the quality of scientific research is the process of peer review. A scientist who did not participate to the research asses that not obvious mistake has been made. But it is clear that no single individual can evaluate in depth the work of sometime hundreds over many years, especially that the referee can judge the work based on an article of at most 30 pages. The standard refereeing process is clearly explained in the article for the general audience.
Scientific articles are never the final words. Instead they are the starting point for further researches, which can confirm or not the claimed findings or conclusions. In the cases discussed in the article, one research deals with a method to grow stem cells and the other on cosmology. Both researches stirred a lot of press and the results of the first could not be reproduced by other laboratories. The Bicep2 group detection of polarized light from the Big Bang is based on extremely complicated analyses that other groups disagree. In both cases the discussions have been intense on the social networks. The one-person refereeing process has been replaced now by this open review process. In the case of the stem cell research, fraud may have been involved. Nevertheless, discussions are parts of the research process.
Interestingly the cosmological results would be categorized as normal science since the aim of the project is to find the signature of inflation as predicted by theorists already in the 1970's to accommodate the standard Big Bang model. The results were announced by press release and press conference ahead of a peer-reviewed publication. The open refereeing has been prompt to check both results. Replicating and checking results are part of the research process. We all do our best to avoid mistake, but making mistakes is also part of the research. As more researchers scrutinize the work of others, obvious mistakes are found and corrected. After all researchers are human and nobody should blame them for making involuntary mistakes. But frauds should be sanctionned.
A recent paper I have co-signed is being discussed on a Facebook group dedicated to my personal field of research. Virtual discussion places on the internet are complementing the conferences where researchers gather to present and discuss the latest results.
I am an academic researcher and as anyone who belongs to a small community with all his unspoken rules, customs, and idiosyncrasies, I am curious but also a bit scared to read about how we, as a community, behave. When I met someone who is much more inclined to the philosophy of science, I was suggested to read what is widely considered the most influential book about scientific advances by Thomas S. Kuhn “The structure of scientific revolution”.
As an astronomer, I have heard about the concept of paradigm shift, which is when a new theory is replacing an exiting one that fails to explain many experimental or in case of astronomy, observational data. A paradigm is a temporary consensus of the community, who may show resistance is accepting the new theory. According to Kuhn, scientific advances are like social revolutions where new social models replace those that are not anymore able to satisfy the need of the societies. Similarly to the social revolutions, the scientific revolutions are necessary. They are lead by a few individuals with early followers and also resistance from proponents of the failing old paradigms. Kuhn was one of the first to analyze the sociology of the scientists in the context of their time to draw his conclusions. Kuhn considered the scientific endeavor that aims at consolidating existing paradigms as “normal science”. Improving instruments to obtain better measurements is “normal” science. Refining theories is “normal” science. Therefore most scientific activities can be categorized as “normal” science. Many failures of existing paradigms in explaining refined measurements or new ones cumulate into “crises” that make the fertile soil for new ideas. There is no revolutionary science without normal science.
The idea of paradigm shift is appealing but the book itself is not straightforward to read to say the least. I did not expect to embark into a long reading journey as I was bringing the short book to all the places I was traveling to. I read the book in short flights, in long-haul flights, in trains, in a car, in coaches, in a truck, and in a ferry. The book even served as a makeshift tripod to take pictures of a solar eclipse. Why did it take me so long to finish it? The book was not written in the clear way a philosophy/sociology book on science should be. I found the book convoluted and I have to read most chapters a few times before grasping the ideas. Our society is know confronted with an overflow of information, either in form of texts, sounds, images, or movies, and we are more and more accustomed to deal with short, direct-to-the-point essays. I am not anymore willing to read long and overcomplicated essays that require some effort to read and to grasp.
Although Kuhn's concepts are keys to the modern view of scientific research and progress, his view on “normal science” may let none scientists to believe that scientists are either conservative people who want to preserve the status quo or people who only aim is to deny existing theories to propose new, more sucessful ones. Kuhn discussed a few examples but I found them not so compelling and their descriptions are scattered over many chapters. The story of the discovery of the element oxygen does not captivate me much. Either the discovery was made by Antoine Lavoisier or English clergy man Joseph Priestley is discussed at length without a purpose. Other examples such as the long controversy on the concept of plate tectonic would have been more appropriate. Another criticism I have is that Kuhn did not actually apply modern scientific method of social science. Instead he argued that he based his thinking after studying the historical accounts of how scientists researched in the past. Overall I find that his discussion is single-sided. He gave examples that support his views but there may be cases where the scientific progress occurs smoothly. After all his essay is about philosophy of science and he may get away with this.
Kuhn's book introduces many concepts that are familiar to many scientists even if they have not read his book. I do not know how much I am unconsciously influenced by his concepts in my research. I am not particularly researching to “revolutionize” my specific research field. Could we overturn a theory without first mastering it? Revolution carries the romantic charm of unconventionality and scientists are dreamers. Already as a “normal” scientist I feel I am “uncommon” in the society, and as any scientist I sometime dream of being the one who will revolutionize my research field.
Contemporary research is teared apart between revolutionary and safe “normal” science. I use the word “safe” science on purpose because predicting the outcomes of “safe” research is easier than that of unconventional research. Convincing science funding agencies about future outcomes is central to modern scientific research. Funding science is betting on which new paradigms will prevail in the future. Like with sport events, there are signs that a team will win a tournament but this is never certain.
I have been travelling these last few weeks and found out that it would a good idea to spend my waiting time at airports to write something for the blog. While travelling one thing you notice immediately is how different you are and look compared to people living there. I am below the average height in France. I felt I am of average height in Madrid, taller than average in Santiago de Chile, short in Munich, and very short in Leiden in the Netherlands. This is not finished yet. I will spend two weeks in Ameland, an island in Friesland in the North of the Netherlands. The people living there are the tallest in the world.