Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Being Part of the Story of Science

When you are an undergraduate student, and for the most part when you're a graduate student (though it starts to change then), you read scientific and mathematical results that have been neatly polished and compiled into books --- and then somewhat less neatly polished and compiled into papers. You probably will see that there are many mysteries left to uncover, but it's still knowledge and somehow something that already exists. And then you become a scientist (and mathematician) and you realize that there are stories --- often very interesting ones --- behind the knowledge and that can occasionally be just as fascinating (or even more so) than the knowledge itself. It's not just that some of the personalities are genuinely interesting (though that is also true) but that the path to knowledge is typically a maze of twisty little passages, all alike --- and there are a lot of inside jokes and events that become part of the stories, and these jokes and stories often have many layers (pun intended).

Being a professional scientist isn't merely about creating new knowledge (though that definitely is part of the deal). It means that you're part of an ever-enfolding story that people outside can watch and appreciate, but you are actually in the story, because you're one of the people helping to create it.

And let me tell you: It is incredibly awesome being one of the players in this evolving story! It's hard to beat being part of that, and I can't imagine trading it for anything.

So the next time you open a math book and see a theorem (or some other important or maybe not-so-important result), remember that that theorem might well have an interesting story behind it. It's more than just a piece of deductive reasoning. And, obviously, the same goes for all other scientific discourse. :)

And what made me think of all this particularly poignantly right now? Ergodic clams, of course. None of the thoughts above are new to me (I have had them many times, in fact), and I'm sure that I could have phrased them more eloquently, but I have to thank Petter Holme and Sang Hoon Lee for the immediate inspiration for writing this post when I should have gone to bed instead.

Now I better start thinking about what my theme song should be...

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