Surprised by Science

Traces within – © Dr Lizzie Burns 2009
Traces within – © Dr Lizzie Burns 2009

One thing I always try to do on this blog is explain what it’s actually like to do science: the fun parts, the challenges, and the mundane – in other words, the human side of science, and particularly biological science.  To back up my ramblings with some perspective from someone who’s spent longer in the lab than I did, I recently interviewed Harvey McMahon. He runs a very successful lab at the prestigious MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. McMahon studies the brain, and has spent time looking at the mechanisms behind the incredibly fast communication between brain cells, or neurones. He has also spoken at the Faraday Institute recently (see previous posts).

We get to hear about the discoveries of scientists in the news, but we don’t often get to find out how those discoveries are made. Like all professions, the every day is very unglamorous. In science there is more than enough interest and excitement to keep people coming back to work day after day, putting in the hours in the evenings and at weekends.

I was interested to find out McMahon’s views on science: what makes good research, what makes a good lab tick, and how is it possible to learn anything new in biology? Continue reading

What is reality?

© Alex Nikada, istockphoto

I am reading two books side by side at the moment: Alister McGrath’s ‘Surprised by Meaning: Science, Faith and how we make sense of things’ (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011) and Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Magic of Reality: How we know what’s really true’ (Bantam Press, 2011).

In ‘Surprised by Meaning’, McGrath focuses on the search for meaning. Longing to make sense of everything we see and experience in the world is a basic human experience. It’s like the ultimate detective novel: how to make best sense of the clues? What’s the truth? I love this quote from McGrath, drawing on an image used by William Whewell.

We must find the right thread on which to string the pearls of our observations, so that they disclose their true pattern.

Dawkins on the other hand writes to convey his amazement and joy at the beauty of the world that science uncovers (a sentiment that McGrath has also expressed in his writing).

What I hope to show you in this book is that reality – the facts of the real world as understood through the methods of science – are magical in…the poetic sense, the good-to-be-alive sense.

Dawkins is also looking for answers. Where I part ways with him is his assessment of what constitutes reliable evidence. I wanted to read Dawkins latest book because I knew it would be a beautifully illustrated celebration of science. I always get so much from his imaginative analogies (the pile of photos analogy for human evolution is genius), and his writing style is something I want to learn from. I will try to pick out some quotes for another post in the future. Others have critiqued his understanding of philosophy and world religions. I do like this thought though:

That is the wonder and the joy of science: it goes on and on uncovering things. This doesn’t mean we should believe just anything that anybody might dream up: there are a million things we can imagine but which are highly unlikely to be real – fairies and hobgoblins, leprechauns and hippogriffs. We should always be open minded, but the only good reason to believe that something exists is if there is real evidence that it does.

I fully agree with this statement – great scientists possess the ability to make a courageously open minded assessment of all the evidence, and that should apply to beliefs as well as scientific data.