Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Science: The Investigation of Bad Results

I really like science. The physical universe, from distance stars to the local fauna, is a fascinating thing. The way matter and energy interact, the way a handful of very simple phenomenon can create something as awesome as sensory perception, the way that singular unpredictable events when multiplied generate highly reproducable results, are all amazing to me. But what is the most amazing is how much science is from bad or inexplicable results (like this idea about bubbles in the bow shock of earth's magnetic field). One of my favorite Q&A's that can happen with laboratory students goes like this:

Student: "Was this supposed to happen?"
Teacher (regardless of what happened): "Yes."

Then there would be an explanation that whatever happens is always what is supposed to happen, but if it differs from what is expected then the understanding or practice was flawed. (In the case of lab experiments it would be the latter.) I'm sure this pisses students off, but it is truly profound. It is also a mainstay of scientific exploration. If systems always behaved as we expected them to then there would be no need to experiment. The nature of the universe could be constructed through thought problems alone. Science practically depends on hypothesis breaking down in order to advance. It keeps people from thinking along the same line; it forces researchers to step back and re-examine the what's and why's; it opens new possibilities.

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