Thursday, November 13, 2008

Real science

I'm having a frustrating science day here. I'm trying to run a pile of simulations examining the coherence of distributed computation in networks, looking into transient bugs and struggling to work out why the simulations are taking much longer than they should.

I was just chatting to a colleague who's having a similarly frustrating time of it, and this reminded my of one of my favourite passages.
This is from the preface to "Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age", by Duncan J. Watts (of small-world networks fame: 1,2), W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2003:
"But real science doesn’t work that way. As I eventually learned, real science occurs in the same messy ambiguous world that scientists struggle to clarify, and is done by real people who suffer the same kind of limitations and confusions as anybody else. The characters in this story are, one and all, talented people who have worked hard throughout their lives to succeed as scientists. But they are also entirely human. I know that because I know them, and I know that we have struggled and often failed together, only to pick ourselves up to try again. Our papers get rejected, our ideas don’t work out, we misunderstand things that later seem obvious, and most of the time we feel frustrated or just plain stupid. But we struggle on, the journey being every bit as much the point as the destination. Doing science is really a lot like doing anything else, but by the time it gets out into the larger world and everyone reads about it in books, it has been so reworked and redefined that it takes on an aura of inevitability in never had in the making. This story is about science in the making."
I just love that passage. While it captures how frustrating this work can sometimes be, it also really sums up for me how rewarding it can be as well. I read this while I was thinking about going back to do my PhD and it definitely helped to solidify that decision.

Oh, and the rest of the book is a very good read as well.