What is science? Answers to a high school student

In my official capacity as a professor, I recently was contacted by a local high school student who asked some questions for a research paper on science.  I asked for permission to repost the questions and the answers I gave here:

  1. In your own words what is science? I view science as a process by which we test our ideas about the natural world, and revise those ideas accordingly based on the results.  The tests, or experiments, are key – ancient philosophers spent lots of time speculating about the nature of the natural world, but they never got very far because they didn’t really test their ideas.
  2. Do you believe that science can be proven? Well, yes and no!  As scientists, we come up with specific hypotheses to explain what we observe, or think we will observe, in nature, and those specific hypotheses can be tested and shown to be correct.  However, no scientific idea is ever considered “set in stone”: scientists are always refining their theories and coming up with more precise experiments to explain the natural world.  It could be said that we are always striving to come closer and closer to “the truth”.
  3. In all the years as a scientist, what has caught your eye the most? One thing that really surprised me about science is the very social nature of the process. People often have the stereotypical impression that scientists are antisocial and spend all day hiding away in the laboratory.  Well, lots of us do spend all day in the lab (or in the office, if you’re a theorist like me), but when we get together at meetings to discuss our research we’re very social and have lots of good interactions.  Scientific meetings for me are like vacations with good friends – friends whom occasionally I get into heated scientific arguments with!
  4. How does science apply to us? Pretty much every piece of technology that we use today, computers, iPhones, vaccines, owes its existence in large part to scientific research.  Also, learning to think critically and scientifically about problems is an important skill in understanding complicated problems that the world currently faces, such as the world’s energy consumption and global climate change.
  5. Are there any scientists that inspire you? My former Ph.D. thesis advisor, Professor Emil Wolf of the University of Rochester, is my biggest inspiration.  He is now in his 80s and still doing excellent research and advising graduate students!  Not only has he transformed the field of optical science during his long career, he has been an amazing advisor, being a friend as well as a teacher.  (And he also has a wonderful sense of humor.)  I will be happy if I manage to be half as amazing a scientist and teacher as Professor Wolf.  Historically, Michael Faraday (1791-1867) is another inspiration.  He was one of the greatest experimental scientists of all time, and made fundamental discoveries in physics and chemistry – and even dabbled in a little biology!  I’ve read many of his original papers and they’re absolutely brilliant.
  6. What has been your greatest discovery? My career is still young, so it’s hard to say!  One of the achievements I’m most proud of is the development of a new type of inverse scattering, called “intensity diffraction tomography”.  It is a technique that is a generalization, of sorts, of the CAT scans that are used in hospitals around the world to produce images of the interior of the human body.  I don’t know if my technique will prove to be as successful or useful, but it is a piece of work that I’m very pleased with.
  7. How does science affect your life? My scientific training has taught me to think skeptically about the world around me, and to pursue vigorously answers to questions that come up in any aspect of my life.  Also, it sounds a little corny, but understanding a little bit about how the natural world works has increased my appreciation of its beauty.

So, how did I do?  I wrote this relatively quickly during the week as I had plenty of other deadlines to meet.  Feel free to critique my answers, or provide your own takes, in the comments.

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7 Responses to What is science? Answers to a high school student

  1. deshvaasi says:

    First time commenting, but I follow you on Reader. I originally came to your blog for the Optics posts. Love your writing, and am amazed that at how prolific you are.

    Good summary on science here. I would have plugged in evolution somewhere, simply because it is a message worth reiterating to kids especially in the face of all the creationist/ID nonsense, and also because it illustrates your first two points beautifully.


  2. Victor says:

    I am a romanian (uncertain of the correctitude of my english); first time here, I wish you succes and growth (as a scientist and a blogger).
    1. It seems to me that you proved the attitude of a true scientist, suggesting (without affirming them) doubts and questions about everything, including your own answers and opinions and the evolution of science (and I’m NOT referring to the evolutionism as opposed to creationism).
    2. VERY interesting questions to be asked to a professor by a highscool student! (Someone to continue watching carefully in the near future.)
    3. Very civil attitude – to ask your student for permission to post here his questions (for your answers you only needed YOUR OWN permission, since you hadn’t promissed him exclusivity as to them).
    4. For an answer TO A HIGHSCHOOL STUDENT, maybe you put insufficient emphasis on the necesitty of perseverence and continuity in research and offered no exemples whatsoever.

    • Victor: Thanks for the comment! You’re probably right that I didn’t emphasize enough the continuity of, and perseverance in, research. I was focused a lot on the question of “proving” science, since that is an issue that causes some of the biggest misunderstandings, including the ones with political consequences.

    • Victor says:

      P.S. “…no scientific idea is ever considered “set in stone”: scientists are always refining their theories…”
      …and sometimes coming up with entirely new explanations and theories for the same old rezults originating from the experiments.

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