The importance of being curious…

Pulsar within the remnants of a supernova

Pulsar within the remnants of a supernova

Last Saturday I went to Curious Stories, an event hosted by Dara O’Briain at the Smock Alley Theatre as part of the Dublin Festival of Curiosity. The panel of five speakers, all either researchers in different fields of science or science writers/ communicators, opened the event by telling their own ‘curious story’ about science before taking part in a general discussion about science, scientific research and curiosity in general. Stories both gruesome and fascinating about headless chickens, the discovery of LSD and human guinea pigs in early research on the digestive system thus blended into a wide-ranging discussion of how science research works, the human dimensions of innovation and the need to maintain simple curiosity about the world.

The whole event had an eighteenth-century salon sort of feel to it, reminding me of the history room of the Natural History Museum of London that explained the popular craze for science during the Enlightenment, when crowds would gather for public lectures and experiments on everything from astronomy to the recent discovery of electricity. Unfortunately, there were no perpetual motion machines or live demonstrations of the powers of electricity on Saturday. As a non-scientist imposter, I did find the discussions fascinating though. One of the highlights of the evening was astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s description of her discovery of pulsars while still a postgraduate student in Cambridge in the 1960s. After helping to build a four-acre radio telescope, she was left with the work of day-to-day observation of the skies. Gradually she began to notice a new signal that could not be explained. She and her team mused over possible explanations from aliens to simple human interference for months, until she discovered several more and they began to make sense of them. These turned out to be pulsars, the signals emitted by neutron stars.

However for me at least it was just as fascinating to hear Jocelyn’s description of the process of research and making sense of a new discovery, as about the science itself. As someone who works as a full-time researcher, I always find it interesting to hear about how other researchers and especially those in other disciplines actually approach their work. Hearing how scientists think about their work on a day-to-day basis, and how they go about constructing methods to solve bigger questions or make sense of oddities or anomalies they have found, as in the case of Jocelyn’s pulsars, made me think about academic research in general, and how humanities and science researchers are perhaps not so far removed from each other as we might think.

All of the panellists were keen to emphasise the serendipitous nature of many, if not most discoveries in science; key developments in everything from pharmacology to engineering were discovered while looking for something else. If most discoveries happen by accident then the flawed distinction between ‘useful’ and speculative or ‘blue skies’ research quickly disappears. It becomes more a question of having the knowledge to be able to make sense of a discovery; to grasp the importance of an innovation and to be able to apply it to a useful purpose. This human dimension of innovation – a subject that Niamh Shaw was particularly concerned with – is especially curious. What makes a researcher or scientist more likely to make a truly original discovery or invention, and at a broader level, one could question why some societies are more open to innovation than others. Groups of researchers working in isolation have often made the same discoveries in a short space of time; this was the case with the work on the Higgs boson particle, as with the discovery of DNA.

There are evidently cultural and sociological factors at work as well as the personal dimension. While it’s not possible to account for the human spark of creativity, we can ensure that a society is as open as possible to new ideas, and able to recognise and encourage innovation. One of the best ways to do this would be through broad education, interdisciplinary collaboration and conversations such as these. Looking back to another age of huge scientific innovation in eighteenth-century Britain – the work of just a few decades led to a host of crucial developments like the steam engine, gas lighting and early experimentation with electricity – there was no hint of the specialisation we have in academia today. Enlightenment scholars could dabble in science while also writing works of philosophy on the great questions of the day, such as beauty or the nature of God. For instance Isaac Newton the renowned scientist was also master of the Royal Mint, an intrepid hunter of coin forgers and published author of several works of theology.

Specialisation does allow us to delve into particular questions and problems in much greater depth, but it does also make it easier to lose sight of the broader questions. And if each scientific discovery or innovation that is made reframes our view of the world and of humanity’s place in it even slightly, then humanities research could play an important role in making sense of these innovations and their implications. Jocelyn Bell Burnell is convinced that astrophysics is getting much closer to answering the question of whether there is other intelligent life in the universe and that within 100 years, we may have discovered alien life. She also believes that much thinking needs to be done on how humanity will handle this encounter, should it ever happen. Although the subject of numerous bad Hollywood films, apparently no government except for the Vatican (as pointed out by Guardian science correspondent Alok Jha), actually has a policy on how to handle an encounter with alien life. While it seems far-fetched, even the possibility of knowing there is alien life would necessitate a whole new understanding of what it means to be human and this is an area where the humanities would surely have a role.

Another area where I saw the potential for further conversation between humanities and science research was in the way that scientists regard their own practice as researchers. When an audience member asked a question about subjectivity in research, many of the panelists became curiously defensive. While I am used to the idea that my work by its very nature is shaped by my cultural background and personal outlook, the discussion among the speakers saw subjectivity mainly as an attack on their professional rigour as scientists. Their calculations were based on maths, and therefore had to be completely objective; any sense that mathematics was simply another system devised by humans of a particular society to make sense of the world seemed to have been lost. It was Alok Jha from the Guardian who contended instead that subjectivity was not a negative quality. It was simply about different ways of seeing the world and if Einstein hadn’t had such a unique way of perceiving reality, we wouldn’t have his theory of relativity.

In Jocelyn’s words, scientists simply test hypotheses that human minds have come up with, but we need minds of great diversity and creativity to continually imagine new models to be tested. This is why diversity in science research is important for the discipline itself; we need people from a variety of different backgrounds to perceive and imagine the world in multiple new ways. This could be said not just for science, but for academic research in general. The widening of access to education from the 1960s onwards has resulted in increased diversity in academia (though this is not to suggest that there is not more to do there) and in history at least this has resulted in a multiplicity of new voices, and new approaches to history such as the recognition of categories like gender, class, and race, and the increased attention to fields like social history, popular culture and more recently areas such as emotion and medicine that shape ordinary life and ordinary people throughout history. Subjectivity, as far as I can see, is only a negative quality when it is not recognized as such.

In highlighting the role of the human mind in shaping what science problems and hypotheses are researched, and with what method, Jocelyn’s comments also pointed again to the potential for conversation between humanities and sciences. The discussions on Saturday evening seemed to point towards the need for an even broader and interdisciplinary education system at undergraduate and even postgraduate level, with courses perhaps organized around themes such as ‘The Body’ or ‘The Natural World’. Events such as Curious Stories will hopefully be the start of a much broader conversation about not just science how we humans perceive and make sense of the world around us.


4 thoughts on “The importance of being curious…

  1. First of all, I’m a little jealous that I wasn’t around to go to the talk with you ;p It is interesting to read your views about scientific objectivity. I think overall, the structure of scientific methods aim towards objectivity, but throw in a human element and there will always be a leaning towards whatever most interests that individual.

  2. Thanks for commenting! I think you are right that scientific (and humanities) methods do aim towards objectivity in our work – certainly at an everyday day level whether it is testing a hypothesis or evaluating a historical source, I think researchers generally aim to be as objective as possible. Where I think the subjectivity comes into play more is when people are making choices about what to research, and why. In history, up until the late twentieth century, the discipline was mainly dominated by traditional historians who studied the policies of governments, monarchs etc without ever questioning why they were looking at developments that only ever affected a small elite group of people, mainly wealthy white men. I’m sure they thought they were being objective in their day to day work, but their idea of history itself was very narrow. I don’t know if this reasoning carries over to science at all, but I do wonder if there could be other possible ways of explaining and describing the world rather than the (obviously very good!) scientific methods and languages we currently use…


  3. Really excellent article Niamh, and it sounds like it was a really interesting talk.

    I agree that there are many situations in which subjectivity influences scientific research – from choosing a research question of interest to formulating a hypothesis, to choosing your methods for analysis. For example, I have quickly learned that when it comes to statistical analysis there is no ‘right way’. The key here is in replication – asking the same question using different samples and different methods. If the results converge then you can be reasonably confident that you have a real effect. Of course, whether that question is the most useful one to ask in the first place is again a matter of opinion. Akin to your example of the ‘traditional historians’, I think every scientific researcher has their own views on what makes for worthy research, and they tend to stick to them 🙂


  4. Thanks Joanne, it’s great to hear the perspectives of other researchers, particularly in the sciences. the importance you put on replication is quite interesting too – this was something that came up on Saturday too as really important for verifying results. In some ways it’s the opposite of the situation in the humanities where there is probably too much territorialism and emphasis on originality… maybe we’re doing it wrong and should focus on collaborating more! And yes I guess the worth or every question posed in research is a matter of opinion… maybe the key is simply to have a diverse field of scientists/scholars out there researching different things.


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