ramblings of an aimless mind

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Musings on science…

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In the last few years, life has taken a direction which, when I left university after my undergraduate degree, I never really thought it would take. At that time, I pictured myself working as a software engineer, probably going on to management etc the usual way. Now I find myself doing a PhD seriously considering a career in scientific research. Obviously my perspective on science has changed and listed here are the most important changes.

“What’s the use?” – Wrong question
Back in my undergraduate days, we used to swagger around pretending to be the practical business oriented types who thought that whatever the PhD guys did was really useless. It was quite routine whenever we met a PhD student that they used to start off telling us about how they studied effect of different coloured light on metallic thin films or something and we used to ask, with a smirk, “what’s the use of this?” and then smirk some more at how they had to think a lot to come up with some good answers.

All these years later, and partly into a PhD programme myself, I realise the folly of my ways back then. That is because most research is not done with a specific applications in mind. There is just a general sense of direction, but not always a specific goal. There is no better example than that of the research by Friedrich Reinitzer on examining the physico-chemical properties of derivatives of cholesterol extracted from carrots. Reinitzer discovered that the compounds exhibited two melting points and has curious properties like ability to reflect circularly polarised light and to rotate the polarisation of light. He called these materials “Liquid Crystals” and after a case of one thing leading to another, I am today sitting here writing this on a laptop which has a display made from liquid crystals. If anyone had asked Reinitzer what applications his research had, I wonder if he has said that we could make displays from them.

Moral:In science, first attempts are made to understand and control phenomena around us. Once we have understanding and control, THEN we find the applications.

The means and not the ends

A typical scene at the start of a PhD is the new student sitting expectantly in front of his supervisor. the supervisor then proceeds to describe the project as he sees it. The description has a lot of impressive sounding jargon, though it isn’t really a sales pitch. Now the jargon motivated student goes away, breaks down the project aim into manageable bits, solves the first one and then goes back to his supervisor feeling pleased with himself and then learns the second lesson…

In science it is not enough to “solve” a problem once, it is necessary to demonstrate that it can be repeated and a bigger plus is if a mechanism for controlling it can be illustrated. Saying something like “I got red coloured liquid crystals” could mean that you achieved that through systematic work, or you achieved it because fortune was smiling on you that day. Saying “I did blah blah and got red coloured crystals, repeating the process five times yielded red liquid crystals every time” is better because now there is a specific improvement in the body of knowledge on the topic. It means someone else who needs red liquid crystals can rest assured that if he invests his time in following the process described, he will get what he wants. Achieving the goal is important is science, but what is more important is that every step along the way is systematically documented and adds value to scientific knowledge.

Science progresses in baby steps, a bit at a time. Very often the original goal set out will not be achieved, but if the process is followed meticulously, the whole endeavour is still a success.

I am not even a third of the way into the PhD and I am sure I will learn more, but at the moment, I am too sleepy to continue 🙂

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Written by clueso

September 3, 2008 at 11:53 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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