Day science and night science


The day-to-day scientific process of asking questions and looking for answers is as directed as it can be, but always involves some element of searching in the dark. My post on ignorance used the metaphor of search for a black cat in a dark room. Francois Jacob, a Nobel prize winning biologist, described this as ‘night science’.

In his biography Jacob explained that

night science…hesitates, stumbles, recoils, sweats, wakes with a start. Doubting everything, it is forever trying to find itself, question itself, pull itself back together. Night science is a sort of workshop of the possible where what will become the building material of science is worked out…Where phenomena are still mere solitary events with no link between them…Where thought makes its way along meandering paths and twisting lanes, most often leading nowhere…What guides the mind, then, is not logic but instinct, intuition. The need to understand.[1]

Jacob’s description of night science is rather dramatic but it captures the continuous questioning, the educated guesses that sometimes work and sometimes don’t, and the ‘slow hunch’[2] that develops as evidence is gathered together. Neurobiologist Harvey McMahon explained Continue reading


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The Dolomites, © Ruth Bancewicz

Climbing mountains brings perspective. Looking down from the top of a high peak, you can see the whole of the surrounding area laid out like a map. You can plan where you want to go next, or maybe even your whole route for the next few days. The feeling of achievement that comes from climbing a mountain is wonderful. Chairlifts and funicular railways are great – especially if you can’t manage a climb – but standing on the summit is many times more exhilarating if you’ve plodded very step of the way up from the bottom.

John Muir was unusual as a scientist because his fieldwork actually involved climbing mountains. A career in most branches of science involves working indoors, sometimes in windowless rooms. As a PhD student in Edinburgh I spent many days examining Zebrafish embryos in the basement, but I could see the Pentland hills from my lab bench – until Cancer Research UK built a research centre that blocked out the view (and I am clearly still nursing a grudge against them for it!) Actually climbing the mountains on my doorstep was a refreshing reminder that the world was going to carry on revolving whether my experiments worked or not. Over the last year I have noticed that mountains are a popular source of metaphors for describing the scientific journey. Being interested in mountains myself, I began to collect these passages and thought they would make an interesting blog post and source of quotes for others. Continue reading