Monday, June 28, 2010

Every Scientist's Faith

I have an essay somewhere that I wrote when I came to SPU seven years ago for "New Faculty Seminar." At the time I had submitted several grant applications but had not heard back. I had an echoing, empty lab room next year and no idea what was going to happen. At the time I wrote about the faith I had to have that my project would work.

Then the grant came in, and we started to work on the project, and ... it didn't work. What was supposed to be working was just giving us more of the same. The second summer of research, I spent about half of it puzzling over strange results of things that would work for other, novel reasons, until we figured out we were stupidly using spoiled antibiotics. Entirely my fault, too.

At points like this you have to have faith that something will work out eventually. The zeitgeist would say "you have to have faith in yourself." But that's not really a scientist's faith. Sure, you can make some brilliant connection, maybe, and you can work hard and get successful results, usually, but a scientist does not have faith in the self. Having faith in myself would have meant that I kept using spoiled antibiotics over and over again. Rather, the scientist has faith that at some level, the world is an ordered place. The faith I'm talking about is faith that what's wrong with the situation is not nature but the experiment.

On the surface, experiments mess up all the time. Undergraduate research is an exercise in frustration, because by definition you are doing something new and so when something goes wrong, is it because of your technique or the controls or the fact that you're doing something new? The scientist sticks with it at that point and trusts that there is an order to find and that the right experiment done well will reveal that order.

This is why monotheism led to science. The polytheistic world was unpredictable and chaotic, rolls of the dice and competing gods determining whether your family would have food or whether you'd win in battle. But one God who made everything in six orderly days meant that nature obeyed God when he spoke. If God gave humans some of that authority, then we humans could also interrogate nature and eventually get an ordered, sensible answer back. And that's worked out pretty well for us as far as iPods and polio vaccines go. On the other hand, thermonuclear war. But I digress.

Scientists sometimes pretend it's easy, as if it's our unparalleled brilliance that squeezes the answers out of nature. But if nature didn't have an underlying order in the first place, organized experiments could never get consistent answers, and we'd be better off figuring out which powerful being was ticked off today and bribing that god with a sacrifice. In fact, that exact polytheistic system developed many times over.

The scientist's livelihood depends on an ordered, responsive, knowable universe. Every scientist knows that most experiments don't work, but that's not that universe's fault. It's ours. And then, once in a while, you figure out the order of the universe, and then you can do whatever you figured out seven hundred times and you'll get the same result. I don't know about you, but I'd look at that fact and call it good.

No comments: