What do ‘scientists’ do?

I have been observing what people do at the Forum. Many people here describe themselves as social scientists. The snobby physicist part of me (and physicists can be terribly snobby about other scientists) says that any profession which feels the need to add the word ‘scientist’ to its name wants some sort of validation. Is this word used simply to add value and convey authority? What does the word ‘scientist’ actually mean?

When this word was first invented in the 1830s, it was used to express commonality between people who were groping their way towards an understanding of their surroundings. So, it could be seen as an identifying badge, to enable people to exchange information about processes as well as results.

But now it’s over-used, particularly by the media, with the result that it’s become a sort of monolithic entity that can shut out non-‘scientists’ because it conveys little understanding of the nature of the work done. For example (and these are all taken from the BBC website);

“Scientists probe matter at atomic level”

“Scientists discover the body of Copernicus”

“Scientists clone from frozen mice”

“Scientists try to track hedgehogs”

“Scientists meet for alien summit”

This overuse of the word covers up what people actually do. All these ‘scientists’ may (or may not) use a common methodology to do their job, but by lumping physicists in with economists, biologists, astronomers, archaeologists etc. we render invisible the very aspects of their jobs that are interesting and unique. And hardly anyone actually describes themselves as a ‘scientist’. The word doesn’t convey enough information.

This imprecision is irritating to me as an ex-astronomer, but also as a writer.

Fiction likes to use precise terms for its exploration. Good fiction feels more real and concrete than bad fiction. It tends to use more specific details and examples of external reality, and the reader can ‘see’ the end results better. But – there are differences in the way that ‘scientists’ and fiction writers use words. Fiction isn’t bothered about, in fact it revels in, the different pictures that different readers make with an author’s words. For all his forensically realist writing, Flaubert can only do so much to define Emma Bovary. My image of her is different to yours. The fictional process relies on the reader and is only completed in the reader’s head; an unread novel does not fully exist.

In contrast, when ‘scientists’ write, they aim to convey their experiments or theories with minimal imprecision so that anyone reading their descriptions should be able to share the same view of reality. So, is there always going to be a tension when writing about science in fiction when the processes of reading science and reading fiction are quite different?

Or does science writing always fail at some level? Does the person reading a scientific paper ever share the reality of the author? And does it even matter? Look at the debate over the meaning of the wave function in quantum mechanics. People argue over how much physical reality that function actually has. Is it real or just a mathematical device? It doesn’t stop people from solving the relevant equation and applying the results to ‘real’ life.

The uncertainty over the interpretation of quantum mechanics is cleverly exploited in ‘Copenhagen’ by Michael Frayn, a play which dramatises the (in)famous meeting between Heisenberg and Bohr in Nazi-occupied Denmark. Here the play gives multiple views of that meeting but never claims to offer the ‘truth’. It can’t. It’s a nice irony that Heisenberg and Bohr, two of the main architects of quantum mechanics, could not agree on the point of that meeting. Had Heisenberg gone there to tell Bohr about the Nazis’ plans to develop an atomic bomb? Or to get information from Bohr on the Allies’ plans?

It’s a much better fictional telling than ‘Einstein and Eddington’ (see my first blog entry) of how war and science impact on each other.

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