Feynman’s Flower

The Sober Scientist.

What an excrutiatingly weird concept to me. I am one myself, a scientist, I mean; and I know how much I have to force myself to not feel but think when it comes to science.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I know where the image of the sober scientist comes from. It starts with all these grave men which seemed to indulge in their seriousness, deigning once in a while to speak to a mere mortal about issues not related to their important work.

One of the grandest of the grave men of science: Isaac Newton. Source: http://www.openculture.com/2015/03/isaac-newton-creates-a-list-of-his-47-sins-circa-1662.html

In an historical context, this graveness has its reasons, too. Think of Isaac Newton who did nothing less than explaining the known universe in the 17th century. Can there be anything more important than that, I ask you!

But when asked to describe his work he had this to say  – and then he became an alchemist. You see, he, too, was a human, with weird thoughts and everything. Alchemists are many things. Sober they are not.

Which brings me to the actual scientific process as it happens in a person. It may differ in detail but there is an underlying sameness to a lot of science procedure.

It always starts out with something that stirs one’s curiosity. Yes, that may very well be an unusual line in an absorption spectrum or something of that nature; but whatever it is, it appeals to your feelings. It makes you wonder, it makes you curious, it motivates you to start digging and finding out more.

Example for an emission spectrum. Source: http://chandra.as.utexas.edu/bhpix.html

Following that comes what people think of as the Scientific Process: The concocting of a hypothesis, the conducting of experiments, the analysis of whatever data is the result of the experiments. This is a period which is dominated by the scientist being and staying serious-minded, looking for loop-holes in his own and others’ thinking. It is just as much about psychology as it is about turning knobs, mixing chemicals or doing mathematics, albeit perhaps not in the way you think it does.

But then. Then! Then at the end of all the toil may be the result, the great synthesis. Oh, what joy it is to finally know – that you don’t actually know at all. I mean, yes we may now understand how that unusual line in our spectrum comes about, but now the rest of the lines, the stuff that made sense before, does not make sense anymore. And that is really intriguing…

An artist’s depiction of The Sober Scientist. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Einstein_tongue.jpg

I will be honest for a second: Nowadays, the only time you ever hear of “sober science” is when people who have poor understanding of what science is, want to define what science is; and yes, that includes some, though not exactly many educated people with a science degree as well.

Science is a vibrating, pulsating experience. Scientists are not more sober, mostly they are not even more intelligent or something, but they are three things:

1. They are interested.

2. They are human and most of them know rather explicitly about human shortcomings in order to work around and with these shortcomings.

3. They are dreamers – and nothing is more poetic to a real dreamer than nature herself.

Let me conclude this text by referring to a recent experience: In January, a colleague and I took Spaceship Aurora on the road to Abisko in Northern Sweden in order to teach interested tourists, the laymen of all laymen, if you will, about aurora. Aurora, if you do not know, is about the Sun, the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic fields – loads of magnetic fields.

Northern Lights over Ostrobothnia. Picture taken by Jan Holmgård @ EduGalaxen. edugalaxen.wordpress.com

In fact, nothing happens without magnetic fields, so we had to make magnetic fields fun for people who had paid money to hear inspiring stories about one of the most wondrous phenomena on Earth. We made them take up their mobile phones, install apps that would use the in-phone magnetometers and look for electric cables underground in the area, which we then claimed to be models for aurora currents in the atmosphere.

Yes, that is exactly what we did.

The tourists seemed to like it, and that may surprise you – until you understand that the Sun, the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field are all about life on Earth as well. Take away one of them and we do not exist. When you see aurora, you see life.

There is poetry in that, a kind of poetry I want to call Feynman’s Flower.

Now read this:  The down-to-Earth implications of Aurora borealis: Wedding’n’shards

2MNiqx7k_400x400Alexander is a physicist, teacher and storyteller. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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