While driving home after a day in the field my supervisor asked my colleague and I what we thought science was all about. My colleague replied with science is thinking of a hypothesis for a pattern and then testing it. I replied with a smile on my face that science is playing. My colleague was a little confused at this answer so I promised her I would write an explanation of my thoughts and this blog post is exactly that.
My thoughts on what science is, has been greatly influenced by a paper in Biology Letters entitled Blackawton bees, which was, apart from the background section, entirely written by children aged 8-10 years old. This was a project created by Dr. Beau Lotto and Dave Strudwick, the headteacher of Blackawton Primary School. During this project several children at the school designed, performed and published an experiment using bumblebees, which tested novel questions in neurobiology. Many people did and might still exclaim that children can't do science. What I and, I am sure, Dr. Lotto and the teachers involved in this project would argue is that children do science all the time.
At its purest most naive level science is playing. As children we learn about the world (its patterns, its relationships) through play. Every time a child throws a ball up for the first few times they are testing multiple relationships, if I throw harder what will happen, if I change the angle what will happen. Children do not make these questions explicit. However, there is no other way of learning what happens when throwing a ball without changing how you throw the ball through play. Dr. Lotto stated that when you add rules to play you create a game. With any game the outcome is largely unpredictable. Science is no different. As scientists we ask a question about the world and we play games in the form of experiments to reveal relationships in the world. The rules in the scientific “games” are the controls, replicates and other aspects of the scientific method that are necessary to reveal the relationships our experiments are testing. We may have an idea of how the experiment will turn out but there is always an element of uncertainty as to what will happen.
Let me elaborate with an example. The same supervisor later on described how his daughter (3 years old) was told by her grandfather that if she drank cola before bed her arms would fall off. The supervisor being the scientist he was decided to create a game for his daughter. They would both drink cola before bed and see what would happen. The rules of the game were that there were two people playing the game (replication) and they both drank approximately the same amount of cola (maintaining variables that are not being tested – a fair test). My supervisor and his daughter predicted that their arms would not fall off, but still, more for the 3 year old, the game could go either way. I was told that the 3 year old thoroughly enjoyed playing this game and they revealed a relationship in the world, that drinking cola before bed does not cause your arms to fall off.
When I asked my colleague what she thought playing is to her, she replied with playing board games, sports and running around. She summed up playing as having fun without any stress. I know for a fact that she loves science and gets very excited about science. The key here is that the stress of science distracts her and other scientists, including me, from the playful fun.
As a scientist there are many pressures which work to diminish our playful nature. Even though writing journal articles are immensely important for the communication of our research, the publish or perish syndrome is one pressure. Dealing with maintaining the grant money, administration work, and then add on to this the possibility of supporting a family and now there are multiple pressures compounding on each other. Furthermore, science can also be immensely tedious (for the past three summers I have measured about 5000 tiny plants each year). All these contribute to the distracting us from the playful side of science.
Dr. Lotto described how “science is a ‘way of being’ that requires seeing the world differently, being excited about uncertainty, being open to possibility and being empathetic to the people and world around you.” As we have seen this “way of being” is innate to children and I would go so far as to say this “way of being” is an innate part of human nature. It is after all our curiosity. Through all the tedium and pressures of our scientific careers we must remember this playful nature. What I am suggesting is that we do not grow up.
This particular post is dedicated to my mother's father. I remember clearly, on a reunion of my mother's extended family, trying to get a reaction out of my grandfather (who was a Professor of Biology at the University of Western Ontario, London) by stating to him that science is a game. He reacted, by replying, jokingly, that science is a serious business. If he were alive today I could use this paper to show that science is a game.