Not every science paper gets to be an incredible breakthrough.
This is my paper. There are many like it, but this one is mine…
Philosophy of Science
As Thomas Kuhn (one of the more important philosophers of science) put it, “typical science is stamp collecting”. This is not a bad thing, and shouldn’t be taken as insignificant (though it does sound like it’s supposed to be belittling… no offence to stamp collectors). What he means is that revolutionary (or paradigm shifting – he basically invented the phrase) science discoveries are incredibly rare. They are the exception, not the norm.
This makes sense. There are millions of researchers, and they don’t all research unique things. If every science paper represented a fantastic breakthrough or revolution, I’d be nervous to trust anyone to build me a bridge let alone correct my eyesight with a frikkin’ laser. Science would be a tumultuous, unpredictable land in constant flux.
No, most scientific work is filling in blanks, verifying details, and making theories more robust.
According to Kuhn, the full careers of most researchers take place within a paradigm. Everyone who graduated with a physics degree when I did was taught basically the same thing. This is because the framework of my field is very well established, and has been for quite a while. Things move slowly in physics. But if you rewind maybe 100 years, physics looked very different. Some fields didn’t exist, and the treatment of certain areas of physics was completely different. H*ck, people used to think the universe was filled by “The Aether” (basically a fluid that permeates the whole universe). But the important thing is that people thought that physics was “almost finished”.
Humans are pretty full of themselves. I’d bet that since the dawn of time, humans thought they were “one piece away” from completely understanding the puzzle that is the universe. And typically, the last piece doesn’t fit, which is great, because that means you need a new paradigm!
So within your paradigm, a researcher is simply looking for the last piece that will completely finish off their field. So how do you do this?
When a new theory is first proposed, it often comes with some form of proof. Ideally, you can have a theory and test it experimentally. For example, I theorize that massive bodies attract each other via “gravity”, and to prove it, I will stand on Earth and drop a couple things. Bingo-bango-bongo, in the limiting case of being on Earth, I’ve shown that all these massive objects are attracted to the massive object that is the Earth. (When I say “massive objects” I just mean that they have mass. There’s no size judgment going on here.)
But this is not an air-tight proof. Who’s to say we will get the same result if I go to the Moon with the same objects? Or what if the objects are actually being attracted to the giant Hoover at the bottom of the universe1?
These are two examples of what “stamp collecting” is all about. In the first case, I’ve pointed out that there is only limited proof of my theory. In the second case, I’ve suggested that, while my theory appears to work, it’s possible that there is a different, better theory. Maybe my current theory gets the easy stuff right, but gets some other experimental result wrong.
Stamp collectors want to silence the haters. The overall goal is to show the theory is completely correct, and they can do this by showing it accurately predicts different experimental results (let’s bring those massive objects to the Moon!) and that their theory is the only game in town – no other theory gets things right as well as their theory does (how come things fall “down” in China too? Suck a lemon, Hoover).
And this is where my paper fits in. It is a stamp collecting paper.
1(that sentence made me throw up in my mouth a bit)
My paper: context
Researchers like to find a niche.
This makes sense. Research can be slow, sporadic and depend a lot on other people (like good/bad grad students). Also, not a lot of areas of research are monetary goldmines. Realistically, the important currency in academia is research output in the form of papers.
Find a niche, and you have uncontested access to all the papers that will describe that area. You can relieve some stress on yourself by knowing “yeah, I can go to France for a month, this research isn’t going anywhere.”
However, all good niches will grow. They will grow into what is known as a SuperNicheTM 2. As niches grow, they tend to collide… and this is a beautiful thing.
When two niches meet, they come together from two potentially very different worlds. They have different customs, may speak different languages… sometimes their families are mortal enemies… Regardless, when two niches meet, they MUST come together. Hopefully they will exist in harmony – that is, hopefully they make the same predictions at their intersection. If this is the case, then you have massively generalized your theory. Congrats!
More often, they don’t get along.
When I started my Masters, a lab mate published a paper. They presented a very bare-bones model to describe their experiment and it worked beautifully. They isolated the physics that was important, and were able to remove details that were minor to the phenomenon, and as a result could make accurate predictions that were very easy to get an intuition for and understand. (Aside: I think this is a very important part of good science, but deserves its own post.)
However, this paper expanded our niche into another niche.
Another group of researchers have been looking at qualitatively similar experiments for some time (read: very similar but with some crucial differences). They had a theory that matched with their experimental results beautifully too. Their theory was mathematically complicated because it accounted for everything. All details were contained within it which, for me, made it hard to understand and even harder to use. This is why, when their theory did not match ours, it was difficult to see why they disagreed.
To be specific, when the other group attempted to use their theory to predict my group’s experimental results, they did not match. However, our group presented a theory that was able to predict our results.
This means someone was getting something wrong.
In situations like this, a good researcher can disassociate from their ego and focus on finding the truth. Our group needed to think critically about both theories and find a way to put ours to the test. Either it will succeed, or it will fail, but we need to know if our theory works. In part two, I will describe the actual science, but what I will tell you now is the competing researchers believed that our model contained an incorrect assumption. I found a way to test this assumption explicitly…
And we were right.
2(no it isn’t)