Counter-narratives for young scientists

I’d like to thank the organizers of this year’s Quantum Leaps Conference for inviting me to speak, all of you in advance for listening, and the Coast Salish peoples—the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh—on whose unceded and ancestral territory we are situated. I’m a theoretical physicist. I study string theory and black holes, among other things, and I welcome questions about these topics (or any others) in the question session afterwards. But in my talk, I’ll be sharing a broader perspective on what science is, and what scientists do. And first of all, I’m going to talk about what science is not.

If I ask you to imagine a scientist, one of two stock types is likely to pop into your head. The first type is the industrious labrat, complete with white coat, safety goggles, and pale blue latex gloves, maybe peering into a microscope or wielding a pipette. These are the props of a scientist if we believe the canonical stereotype, the one we see in films, television, books, and really everywhere in popular culture. But whatever its flaws, this stereotype has one saving grace: it’s democratic. Everyone can aspire to wear a labcoat and look through a microscope.

The second stock type doesn’t wear a labcoat, and is more likely to be sporting a turtleneck sweater or a tweed jacket and standing in front of a blackboard. Instead of a microscope or pipette, their tools are chalk, equations and big ideas. If we take the stereotype to its logical, or rather pop cultural, conclusion, they’re probably white and male, and could be confined to a wheelchair, or schizophrenic, or possessing a big frizz of white hair. In other words, they are scientific genius personified, the Albert Einsteins and Stephen Hawkings and John Nashs. This is not a role most of us feel invited to participate in.

But in general, scientists don’t look like either of these pictures. And even when they do, the stereotypes don’t tell us what a scientist does, or why they do it. All the stereotypes say is that you need to wear a labcoat, or be a white guy with a talent for pushing symbols around, neither of which is actually a prerequisite! Nevertheless, these are narratives about science that can and very often do guide career decisions—we’ve been exposed to them all our lives—so I would like to tell you some counter-narratives about what the prerequisites are. Really, the main prerequisites are very simple. All you need is the courage to admit you don’t know something, and the curiosity to wonder about the answer.

Let me give an example. For two thousand years, we had it figured out. We knew why some things fell to the ground, and why some things floated off into the air, thanks to the Greek philosopher Aristotle. He told us that different objects were made from different elements—earth, water, air, and fire—which were heavier or lighter, and therefore moved up or down to find their level. This explains why the dirt is under our feet, the atmosphere is layered over the top of it, and the fiery pinpricks of starlight revolve far above.

If I take a clod of earth, and let it go, Aristotle says it will drop back down to the ground because the ground is where it belongs and likes to be. That’s been the accepted view for most of recorded history. But in 1665, Cambridge University closed due to fears of the Black Plague—not so different from universities around the world today—and one of its recent graduates, a lazy and undistinguished young man, came home, had no more exams to study for, no more tests to pass, and nothing better to do that to sit around and ask idle questions. One of these idle questions concerned the motion of the clod of earth, represented, for the lazy student, by an apple he reputedly saw fall from a tree.

“Why should it not go sideways, or upwards? but constantly to the earth’s centre?” he wondered. Now, the apple is a combination of earth and water, so if we believe Aristotle as most other people did, it just wants to find its level. That’s why it falls down. But the young man—who, as you may have guessed by now, was Isaac Newton—didn’t understand this answer. He just didn’t get it! What mechanism caused the apple to move? What caused it stop? Why did it go to the centre? Why not sideways a little? Aristotle didn’t say. So Newton had to come up with his own explanation. He very sensibly concluded that “assuredly, the earth draws it.” In other words, the earth pulls the apple towards it. Thus, he continues, “there must be a drawing power in matter, and the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the earth must be in the earth’s center.” That’s why it gets pulled to the center of the earth.

This little observation planted the seed for the most productive year any human being has ever had. In 1666, the lazy student invented Newtonian mechanics to explain how the apple started and stopped moving, the law of gravitation to explain why it was pulled towards the centre of the earth in the first place, and then an entirely new branch of mathematics called calculus, to help him solve some of the math problems that cropped up. Now, Newton was smarter than the average bear, but that’s not the point. The point is that, in order to do any of that, he first needed to ask the simple question: why does the apple fall? And he needed to admit that he didn’t understand Aristotle’s answer. And in trying to satisfy his own curiosity, he more or less created math and physics as we know them.

The courage to admit you don’t know, and the curiosity to ask; these are the true prerequisites for being a scientist, not a labcoat or a giant brain. I’m not going to deny that Newton had a giant brain. But Newton’s achievements are the achievements of an ordinary scientist writ large. He asked questions, and with great tenacity, careful observation, and generous hints from his predececssors—standing on the “shoulders of giants” as he put it—he answered them. And that’s what science is, whether you’re studying physics or oceanography or the social habits of lemurs, whether you approach questions big or small or somewhere in between, it’s the same basic enterprise.

Newton would later write. “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” And it’s easy to read this and think Newton is being modest, or even rather obnoxious. You were just playing around the whole time? Come on! But I think that unlike the stereotypes, Newton is actually giving us a very clear picture of why scientists do what they do. They do what they do because they care about the answers; because the answers are beautiful; because the questions are beautiful. For Newton and scientists of all times, the universe really is a seashore of smooth pebbles and pretty shells. And the microscopes and pipettes and equations are all just a means to get closer to these diverting objects, to know their nature better, and learn some of their secrets.

There’s another important lesson here. The pebbles and shells give us hints about the nature of the ocean, since that’s where they come from. It might lie undiscovered in all its unfathomable depth before us, but the sea scatters its clues on the shore. The pebbles and shells are the small questions, thing like: why does an apple fall? And not: what makes the world go round? Newton answered the big question, he explained why the world goes round, but only because he asked the little question first. So if we allow our curiosity to settle on the ordinary things, on the humble things, the shells and pebbles on the beach, we may, like Newton, stumble onto deeper truths in that undiscovered sea.

But maybe one of these deep truths is that everything is interesting, including the pebbles and shells and ordinary things. This is one of the perks of being a scientist. You are part of a human-operated scheme for turning the universe into a fractal of wonder, something which exhibits wonder in every object and at every length scale. There is nothing more wonderful to a geneticist than a bacterium; to an entomologist, than a puddle of stagnant water; to a wildlife conservationist, whale poop; and to a soft matter theorist, watching paint dry. You get the idea! But you don’t need to take other people’s word for it. You can dive into this fractal, and allow yourself to become interested in everything! Einstein wrote a paper about tea leaves and river bends; Richard Feynman, another famous 20th century physicist, was stumped by the problem of snapping spaghetti; mathematician Jean Taylor spent years proving results about soap bubbles, and physicist Kenneth Libbrecht wrote a 500-page book about snowflakes. Everything is interesting.

Sometimes, people say that science reduces the world to a bunch of moving parts, to mere cause and effect, and thereby empties it of meaning. But I think the opposite is true: it makes it full. The 19 stars which form the constellation we call Orion, for instance, have a long and rich history of human interpretation. To the ancient Babylonians, these stars represented Anu, the heavenly shepherd and chief of the gods; to the ancient Egyptians, it was the destination of the pharaoh’s spirit after death; it was a giant to the Arab astronomers; a fool to the Hebrews; and a hunter, not only to the Greeks, who gave it the name Orion, but the Magyars of Hungary, the Seri people of Mexico, and the Chuckchi of Siberia.

But as colourful and varied as they are, these images pale in comparison to the splendour of creation itself. Each of the 19 points in this dot-to-dot is a vast thermonuclear furnace, formed millions or billions of years ago from collapsing clouds of dust, and with a tortuous life history of its own. One of the brightest stars in the constellation is Betelguese, a star so huge that, if we put it in the center of our solar system, it would swallow Jupiter. Betelguese is a renegade. It grew up in a pocket of debris humorously called the OB1 Association, and perhaps as a result of some Star Wars, it got kicked out, and now hurtles through space at 30 km/s. As it travels through the interstellar medium (a light sprinkling of hydrogen and other elements) its magnetic field kicks atoms out of the way, forming what’s called a bow shock, the same way that the prow of a boat creates a wake as it displaces water. The magnetic wake of Betelguese is three times wider than our solar system, and if you happen to have an infrared telescope, it’s visible as a brilliant curve of light, marking the passage of this lonely ship through the deeps of space.

There are many more things I could say about Betelguese, but this is a single star, one of 19 in the constellation of Orion, which is one of hundreds of constellations that humans of different times and places have invented, using only the stars visible to the naked eye. These visible stars, in turn, are a mere sliver of the total number of stars in the galaxy, and our galaxy is one of billions. Like the sun, we expect most of these stars to have planets, and for some of these planets to have their own inhabitants, and for some of these inhabitants to form their own stories and pictures from the bright stars in their vicinity. And perhaps, every now and again, they ask why things fall.

Each star, planet, and organism, each atom of the interstellar medium, even empty space itself, each of these moving parts is a constellation to the scientist, a dot-to-dot onto which they project scientific images and meanings, and which change as new data points become visible or old ones dim and disappear. For every human culture which has looked up at Orion and seen something different, there is a subfield of astronomy or physics or chemistry which looks up and sees the same diversity in Betelguese. The Renegade has just as many stories to tell as the Hunter. But unlike Orion, they are stories about itself rather than something else. And in a universe so much older, larger, and stranger than anything the ancient myths prepared us for, we need new stories to orient us, preferably those told by the objects themselves and woven into the world. The job of the scientist is to listen and interpret. Of course we make errors, we mishear, we misunderstand, and read our own biases into things. But at the end of the day, we come back to what the world is trying to tell us. The process is self-correcting because we care about the underlying stories. Broadly put, science is the act of falling in love with reality, listening to its stories, and filling it with meaning.

So, to be a scientist, you don’t need a labcoat. You can wear anything you like. Your skin can be any colour. You can be male, female, or non-binary. It doesn’t matter. As long as you approach the universe with an open mind, with the humility to admit that you don’t know, the curiosity to ask, and enough love and wonder to listen to reality’s answer, then you have all that it takes (and probably much more) to be a great scientist. Thanks for listening.

Written on November 12, 2020