Book Preview: Error—Scientists Are Human

burners-1635395-1920x1280 varglesnarg freeimages
© Varglesnarg,

But [Peter] replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” Jesus answered, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.” Luke 22:33–4

The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly. Luke 22:61–62

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, ‘Feed my lambs.’ John 21:15

Every scientist understands the meaning of error—though perhaps not that of forgiveness. Continue reading

The Art of Molecular Biology

Picture of containers of DNA 'markers'
© Algiamil,

In Science, Faith and Creativity I explained how science can be creative, and that a Christian working in the sciences might see that as part of their relationship with God. Apart from a brief description in The Creativity of Chemistry, I haven’t yet given an example of what creative science looks like, so I will attempt to remedy that here. (This is a longer post than usual because I have included a basic explanation of molecular biology for the non biologist.)

I personally came to appreciate the creativity of science while studying genetics. Creative people generate ideas and make new things, and I discovered that lab-based research involves both of those activities. My favourite part of the genetics course at Aberdeen University was molecular biology: the study of DNA and proteins. I enjoyed the challenges of problem solving, lateral thinking and visual model making that were involved in exploring the micro-world of cells and molecules. I also appreciated that fact that we were learning about solutions to real-life issues. Continue reading

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


Piotr Lewandowski,
© Piotr Lewandowski,

To follow on from my post about asking questions, I’ve been thinking about how much we don’t know. Stuart Firestein, a neuroscientist from Columbia University, has written a book called Ignorance: How it drives science.[1] In Ignorance, Firestein describes how he loved lab science, but found teaching undergraduates a bit of a struggle. The problem was that he spent the whole time teaching what was known, filling the students’ brains with knowledge. He had forgotten that as well as following the textbook, he could highlight the gaps in knowledge or the rival theories, showing where the opportunities are for young researchers to push back the boundaries themselves. Those are the really interesting parts. Continue reading


Bensik Imeri,
© Bensik Imeri,

When I was a PhD student in Edinburgh I went to a church that was located conveniently next to a number of good pubs. A bunch of us used to pile into one of these establishments after the Sunday evening service. The ensuing conversation ranged from ‘Who are you?’ (it was a big church), to discussions of the sermon we had just heard and other more philosophical issues. One evening I sat next to a photography student, and when I introduced myself as a PhD student in genetics she said something along the lines of, ‘All those facts and figures are not for me, I’m an arts student.’  Rather than just moving on, which would have been infinitely easier, I tried to explain why I thought science was interesting. I think I won, but you can judge for yourself.

We started out by talking about textbooks. No matter how well written one of these tomes might be or how lavish its illustrations, it’s unlikely to make it onto anyone’s bedside table unless it’s exam time. I pointed out that textbooks have their place – a student has to get up to speed in their chosen field – but by the very nature of science they’re out of date before they’re printed. Continue reading

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


Dolomites cropped 2
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