We all need to think like scientists

By remaining curious and open-minded, we can all think scientifically

The nineteenth-century physicist Lord Kelvin, Professor at Glasgow University, said in 1900 that “the beauty and clearness of [physics]… is at present obscured by two clouds”. Concealed within these clouds were the two most successful theories of twentieth century physics – general relativity and quantum mechanics. Between them they describe the Universe, from the incredibly huge to the unimaginably small.
These two theories are the pillars of modern physics, and yet they remain theories. Scientific theories are more than just ideas – they represent our best understanding of the Universe at this time, and they are supported by evidence. However new evidence can arise which challenges the old theories, just as Kelvin’s clouds did. Newton’s theory of gravity successfully stood for 300 years but was unable to explain Mercury’s orbit, and was replaced by general relativity.
To think like a scientist is to critically and dispassionately assess the new evidence, and to be prepared and willing to change one’s mind should the new evidence prove compelling. This can involve letting go of deeply held ideas about how things work – something that is not easy to do. It is difficult to challenge our own preconceptions and be open to the ideas of others.
Like everyone else, scientists struggle with emotions and biases, and must work hard to keep an open mind. Yet without this willingness to discuss concepts and have our own ideas challenged, science would have stalled many centuries ago.
Thinking like a scientist means holding one’s own beliefs as provisional, as a working model that is useful until something else comes along. The truly great scientists share one thing – they are willing to challenge the received wisdom of the time, to assess ideas on their own merits. Science is a world of inherent uncertainty – nothing is beyond doubt, everything is open to question.
Our wider world is currently full of uncertainty. We live in a changing world, in a society which is deeply politically divided, where arguments and counter-arguments spread online like wildfire. In a world where we have instant access to innumerable facts, for most of us the onslaught of information is simply overwhelming. For the most part, we stay within bubbles, exposing ourselves to views which broadly agree with our own.
Such a bubble world is comforting, but without exposure to ideas and evidence that challenge our views, we can become entrenched in our opinions, considering only the evidence that agrees with our pre-held beliefs.
We don’t need a formal scientific training in order to be able to think like scientists. Each of us is capable of asking questions, participating in discussions and keeping our minds open to new ideas. In this uncertain world, we all need a healthy dose of scepticism, a curiosity to find out how things work and a readiness to listen. We all need to think like scientists.

 

This piece originally appeared in The Scotsman on 22 May 2017 as part of the Scotsman200 feature.

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Physics vs psychology: which is the hard science?

We’re going to the Fringe!!!

I’m very excited to announce that Kate Cross and I will be performing at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe festival as part of the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas.

Here’s a quick taster:

The year is… not important; this is fiction. But Susan, the last secondary school student on Earth, is deciding what to study at university. Physicist Helen Cammack and psychologist Kate Cross (University of St Andrews) are here to do battle for Susan’s soul. Should she pursue physics, the study of the universe? Or psychology, the science of the mind? Is there a hard option and an easy option? Susan needs you to come along, ask hard questions of our two scientists and help her choose her path…

Tickets available here

Please come along!

#EdFringe #codi2017

If my PhD were a marathon

We’d all stand on the starting line, hyped, pumped,

Ready for the off.

Years of training brought us to this point

All those other races, exams, degrees paling into insignificance –

This is the Big One.

The starter cracks the pistol, and we’re off,

Jostling our fellows, trying to find some room to research.

As the race wears on we spread out

No longer treading on each others’ toes

Each pushing along in our own world.

Spectators yell their support from the sidelines

The noise seems so distant

Though the encouragement is welcome.

I bow my head, grit my teeth, and push on

Keep going keep going keep going

I look desperately for a mile marker

But none is nearby.

I grab a drink, a snack – something sugary –

And return to work. Keep pushing

Surely it’s not too much further?

As I enter the final mile the crowd roars louder

Can’t stop now can’t stop now

I dig deep, use my final energy reserves

The deadline looms larger and larger

I haul myself across it, victorious.

Then – oh, cruel world! – another mile to run

Before I can receive my trophy, a viva

Corrections, resubmission

I jump the hurdles

Till finally

I am finished.

 

Image credit: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-36123550 

Lights, Camera, Action! – Making your own physics videos

 

Here’s a quick cheat sheet on how to make your own amateur physics videos. Big thanks here go to the people at IOP Scotland, SUPA, Education Scotland and SSERC, without whose advice and support I never would have gotten behind the lens.

Plan:

  • Who is your intended audience? What is their background?
  • What is the main message of your video? For a short video (approx. 5 mins), you should have a maximum of 3 key points you wish to convey. Adding too many messages can confuse your viewers.
  • How long will your video be (roughly)?
  • What will you use to show your key point(s) to the viewer? This might include animations, diagrams, images, spoken explanation or a combination of the above.
  • Write a script that incorporates the key points, and links them together. Think about the background of your audience – what physics do you need to explain to them? Your script will have visual and audio elements, e.g.:

[Video of spinning top]

“Now we’ll look at the motion of a spinning top.”

  • Look at your script and decide what visual elements you need to produce. List these, along with how long you would like any animated elements to be on screen for.
  • Share your draft script with others and get feedback.

Produce:

  • Create your visual elements – this can be done in a huge variety of ways and this list is not comprehensive!
    • Mathematica – good for animating mathematical functions/plots
    • Blender – allows you to draw diagrams that can move, and can create a 3D view by moving camera angle
    • Inkscape – vector graphics package, good for diagrams
    • Explain Everything – iPad based software, animated hand drawings
    • PicPac – Android software, stop-motion videos

Think about what you want your animation to show, what colours/labels you will use on any plots/diagrams, and how long you want your animation to be displayed for.

  • Record your audio: this can be done on a smartphone or similar. Go somewhere quiet and reduce background noise, and read out your script. Keep the recording device about a hand’s width from your mouth when recording, and speak slowly and clearly. Don’t be afraid to do several takes – it’s natural to stumble at first. Listen back to yourself, or ask someone else to. Try to record all the audio in one session, as your voice will change from day to day.
  • Combine your audio and your video by using a video editing package such as Corel Video Studio Pro, which has a free 30 day trial. You can speed up or slow down video clips, add still frames, enter subtitles and much more. Once you’re done editing your video, publish it (in Corel Video Studio, this is done in the ‘Share’ tab).

 

Congratulations! Of course, you should now evaluate your video in order to make an even better one next time, but we’ll leave that to a future post…