A while ago, I was watching a talk on C-Span Book TV, and a question to the author was prefaced by the statement, “Science is so deliciously gray.” The questioner’s point was that while the common perception is that science is black and white, yet at the cutting edge of science, knowledge and understanding are not so clear cut, in other words, gray. So why spell it “grey” in the blog title? It might be a little too cute, but it does capture the ambiguity and uncertainty that permeates scientific research. If our knowledge was certain, there would be no need for any research. I am reminded of reading a quote by Harold Edgertonwho was working with Jacques Cousteau on developing an underwater sonar system to create 3D images of the sea floor (I am quoting from memory from a National Geographic article (1987), “Doc Edgerton: the man who made time stand still.”).
Some people think that science is like stacking wood. You take a pile of wood and stack it piece by piece until you have a nice neat stack. No, this isn’t what science is about. I was working last summer with Cousteau trying to develop a 3D sonar imaging system. Well, we tried and failed, tried and failed, and tried and failed. By the end of the summer, we were no closer to our goal than at the beginning. That’s when you know you are doing real science.
This story reveals the essence of scientific exploration, pushing the bounds to see further. As alluded to in this story, science is not the mere accumulation of facts, though collecting facts, data, is a part of the process. This misperception is understandable since the way science is taught, students think that it is an exercise in memorizing facts. Textbooks and teachers are the bearers of knowledge, and it’s the students job to memorize them and answer the test questions correctly. Laboratory exercises are experiments in name only: you know what the answer should be even before you begin. It’s a black and white world, a deterministic world, and to me a lifeless world.
But the practice of science is entirely different. I might have a good idea as to how an experiment might turn out, but I don’t know for sure. I want to find out — no, I need to find out. Often results don’t make any sense according to what you and others know. For me, I enjoy this grey place of ambiguity. It’s not the Eureka! moment that you hear about, but you know you are on the way to deeper understanding.
Enough of this sort of philosophy. Back to science.