What is science?

Even though we’re quite some time back now, one question is still stuck in my head. A question that has been raised during the last day of the summer school, namely what is science/what is a scientist? Klaus Tochtermann one of the last keynote speakers defined science by profession. This made me think. Especially when it’s so hard nowadays to get a full-time job in science, is this still a working definition? Isn’t this way of thinking a little outdated? Especially if you keep in mind that you have to pay for a PhD in some countries, which means not everybody can just be educated as a scientist.

I don’t have a final answer myself, but especially during these last days writing my PhD I’m thinking very much about, what science is and what scientists do (and if I should pursue the ‘science path’).

I’ve googled around a little and found many definitions. For example this one by Claude Bernard (1813-1878): “A modern poet has characterized the personality of art and the impersonality of science as follows: Art is I; Science is We.” Or this one by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834): “Poetry is not the proper antithesis to prose, but to science. (…) The proper and immediate object of science is the acquirement, or communication, of truth; the proper and immediate object of poetry is the communication of immediate pleasure.” Or this one by Matt Ridley (1999): “The fuel on which science runs is ignorance. Science is like a hungry furnace that must be fed logs from the forests of ignorance that surround us. In the process, the clearing that we call knowledge expands, but the more it expands, the longer its perimeter and the more ignorance comes into view. (…) A true scientist is bored by knowledge; it is the assault on ignorance that motivates him – the mysteries that previous discoveries have revealed. The forest is more interesting than the clearing.” Or this funny one: “A carpenter, a school teacher, and scientist were traveling by train through Scotland when they saw a black sheep through the window of the train. “Aha,” said the carpenter with a smile, “I see that Scottish sheep are black.” “Hmm,” said the school teacher, “You mean that some Scottish sheep are black.” “No,” said the scientist glumly, “All we know is that there is at least one sheep in Scotland, and that at least one side of that one sheep is black.”

So what is science? Am I any wiser now? I’ll be honest with you: No I’m not. And this has exactly been my problem with science for a long time. As I’ve understood the idea is that we close research gaps and that we built up a body of knowledge. And to do so we define and re-define. We fight over concepts, wording and arguments. We try to be the best and the most cited one. We try to be convincing and sometime we raise our voices in order to be heard. So is this what science is all about?

I still don’t know. But I know that science has all these amazing opportunities. Like the summer school with all these smart and bright people who never stop asking questions, even thought we might not reach a conclusion sometimes. And maybe this is what science is all about: Taking the time to think. And to finally find our own answer. And every answer may be valid.

2 thoughts on “What is science?

  1. Thank you Martina, for this very interesting question!
    I am not wiser than you – but at least, thanks to you a little wiser than before – and I therefore don’t have a final answer yet. But I always thought of scientists (the real ones, not the ones that are more PR people or politicians) as artists, who never stopped to wonder about the world and what they can do with it.

    In my opinion it’s not building a body of knowledge, but to try to understand what’s going on, just for the sake of knowing it and of course playing with this knowledge. The changing part of the world comes as a side effect ;)

    I hope I will not loose the little reputation I just gained, but I don’t care about closing research gaps or what words people use if they mean the same thing. I care about never loosing my curiosity about the world. I care about still feeling good, when I was able to make people see what I see. And the pleasure I feel when I finally understood what my students wanted to say (as I did right now, while I was preparing for our wiki seminar) :)

    That’s what a good artist is for me. And I (just I) have never seen a good artist who actually cared for money. Maybe we should start to think about manager for scientists, like the art industry already has ;)

  2. Hey Katrin,

    thanks for your comment! Acutally I do think it’s time take up the money question. While I think the motivation for ‘science job’ shouldn’t depend on the salary it’s still important to be able to make a decent living out of it. Right now this seems often impossible :(

    Kind regards,

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