Intro by Kathryn Applegate: The BioLogos blog is currently on hiatus from regular content as we prepare for the launch of a major website revision. In the meantime, we are running bits from some of our favorite books on faith and science. Today’s selection picks up in the middle of a chapter called “Life in the Lab,” which is about the rhythm and process of doing science. Ruth points out that most people who read about scientific discoveries have almost no idea how they were made. Oh, how I wish someone had handed me a book like this when I was a first-year grad student, or better yet, a science major in college! I especially love the section called “Ignorance.” Doing science isn’t about mastering what’s known (though knowing your field is critical); it’s about feeling around in the dark. It wasn’t until my fourth year in graduate school when I read an essay on the same topic by an eminent scientist in my field, which brought an enormous sense of relief and understanding: oh, you’re supposed to feel stupid in science! The fact that your ignorance is nearly infinite isn’t discouraging, it’s liberating! “Conscious ignorance,” Einstein reminds us, helps us ask the right questions.
So what has to happen before the corks can be fired? We might hear the story of a eureka moment when someone realizes, “So that’s how it works!” and suddenly a whole area of science changes as everyone rushes to use this new piece of information, but that’s not how scientific discoveries usually happen. For most scientists, finding something out is a very gradual process of seeing things coming together.
A discovery in biology often starts with a new PhD student nervously beginning their project. There are long days in the lab, and many false turns, before the first promising data emerges. These results are presented to critical colleagues who suggest further experiments. Others might come on board to help with certain aspects of the project. New experiments are designed, and months are spent testing different ideas. The final pieces of data are generated, and then they spend long days bent over a hot computer writing a dense and meticulously referenced paper. The paper is submitted to a journal, the anonymous reviewers give some feedback, a few more experiments must be done, then resubmission and a long wait. Finally the paper is accepted and the whole research group joins in the celebration.
The above story of the student is only the simplest possible version of events. The process of producing successful research can involve large numbers of people over several years, international collaborations, promising leads that go stale, and surprising results from unexpected places. And everyone has their blind spots: a bias, a pet theory, or a student who botched one of their experiments and failed to confess it.
In almost every instance of scientific discovery, no single experiment will do, no lab can change the course of history, and no individual can go it alone. Every major development is a painstaking building up of multiple layers of evidence by many people, and each paper and its champagne celebration is just a small milestone along the way. It’s very telling that Nobel prizes are usually awarded many years after a discovery is made. The work must be tried and tested thoroughly before anyone can say the course of scientific history has been changed.
What does good science look like?
Harvey McMahon has seen his fair share of celebrations. When I asked him what good science looks like, his replies covered both technique and people management. People do experiments and guide research projects, so to do science well you need to understand human nature. He started by saying that “a student needs to start with experiments that are actually achievable. Progress in science is often limited by what can be done rather than what you feel you should be able to do”. I can’t help feeling that would be a good principle for life in general.
McMahon works closely with his students to help them develop their experimental technique. “The first result is exciting for the student because they have done something new, so they should enjoy that moment and show off their results to everybody. But experiments are only believable if they can be reproduced, so you get them to do it again two or three times. If the same data keep coming up you take that result apart and figure out all the different reasons why it looks that way.”
Some of this interpretation will be interesting and some will be very mundane. One of the questions Harvey asks is, “Is the data significant, or was the equipment not calibrated properly?” The next set of experiments that person designs will include control samples to test for those possibilities, and also several other ways of checking the result. “The second round of results will almost certainly produce a more complete answer,” said Harvey, “a small piece of real information about the question they are trying to answer. Eventually what you are hoping for is that each individual will contribute much more than the pieces of information themselves. They will contribute useful knowledge.”
Success in science also involves having good intuition. For Harvey, this means “getting the best information and putting it all together in the light of your own experience, constantly questioning what you are doing and making sure the next experiment is not just a random shot in the dark. You need to know the techniques that are more likely to work, and which are most accurate. We now have access to an amazing number of techniques, so you do the experiment first one way and then another”. This principle is a bit like doing a sum and then subtracting the numbers afterwards to see if you did it right the first time. The other thing to do is ask questions that might disprove what you’ve done. Trying to prove yourself wrong is a rigorous way to do science.
When I asked Harvey about “eureka moments”, he said that “sometimes new paradigms come about almost imperceptibly. Someone publishes a paper here, then another person does work that agrees or disagrees with it there, and then half a dozen other people say they found it first. You never know when to celebrate, but at some point you need to open the champagne bottle and enjoy your achievement.”
Harvey described the first time, about fifteen years ago, when he found evidence that the shape of a cell was determined by proteins embedded in its outer membrane. “Nowadays that seems completely trivial,” he explained, “but nobody agreed with me then. So I had arguments with absolutely everybody in the canteen about it.” Those conversations helped him to come up with different ways to defend his theory, and determined the course of his work in the lab. “I found people who were willing to do experiments with me, and we got evidence that proteins shape membranes. Nowadays people accept it, but initially it was a hunch that developed very, very slowly.”
The picture of science I have painted so far is a far cry from what most of us learn at school. As a PhD student in Edinburgh I joined a church that was conveniently located next to a number of good pubs. Some of us used to pile into one of these establishments after the Sunday evening service, and the ensuing conversation ranged from “Who are you?” (it was a big church) to discussions of the sermon we had just heard, and other more philosophical issues.
On one of these Sunday pub nights I sat next to a photography student, and when I introduced myself as a geneticist she said something along the lines of, “All those facts and figures are not for me, I’m an arts student.” Rather than just moving on, which would have been infinitely easier, I tried to explain why I thought science was more than a bunch of facts.
We started out by talking about textbooks. No matter how well written a scientific textbook might be or how lavish its illustrations, it is unlikely to make it onto anyone’s bedside table except during exam time. I pointed out that textbooks have their place, but the dynamic nature of science means that they’re out of date before they’re printed.
I explained that the job of scientists (such as McMahon and his lab members) is to go to the shelf of unanswered questions, pick out one they know a bit about and think they can tackle, take it to the lab and start looking for answers. As they work they’ll find things out but they’ll also discover more questions, some of which they investigate and some of which are put on the shelf for later. As soon as they begin to make progress they start putting together a scientific paper. After they’ve published their article, celebrated, and had a bit of sleep, they throw their new paper gleefully over their shoulder and run back to the shelf of unanswered questions. What next? What about that thing that looked weird in the last experiment, is that worth following up? Let’s test the theory we just published even further – does it apply in other circumstances? Every stage in the enquiry is a step closer to a truer understanding of the world.
My friend was surprised, and said she would have found science much more exciting if it had been presented that way at school. It’s sometimes difficult to get the message across that science is a process and not an encyclopedia at the same time as cramming heads full of knowledge, but science teachers need to shout it as loudly as possible before any more young people are duped into thinking that science is boring.
In the real world of science, a certain kind of ignorance drives forward the process of investigation. Harvey McMahon told me how he got a reputation as a talker when he was a post-doc in the USA, and was invited to attend the lab meetings of Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein. These two men ran an unusual joint lab, collaborated together on cholesterol research, and won a Nobel Prize for their work. Harvey said that “they used to invite me along to their lab meeting simply because I used to always ask questions and they like people to ask questions”. In return, he got to learn about some of the best research happening at the time. Clearly the drive to find out “Why?” and “What’s that?” is still important to successful science.
Taking this idea even further, a neuroscientist from Columbia University has written a book called Ignorance: How it Drives Science. The author, Stuart Firestein, describes how he loved lab science, but found teaching a bit of a struggle. The problem was that he was following the textbook, and had forgotten to highlight the unknown areas or rival theories. He had missed out the most interesting bits.
Firestein’s analogy for scientific research is that it’s like looking for a black cat in a dark room. “It’s groping and probing and poking, and some bumbling and bungling…” Eventually someone finds a light switch, and a solution is revealed. Everyone exclaims, “Oh, wow, so that’s how it looks,” then they troop into the next dark room. This process is exciting to scientists, so when left to themselves they tend to talk about what is unknown, rather than the contents of books. As Marie Curie said, “One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done…”
So to counteract his unthinking tendency to teach only the known, Firestein created a new course called Ignorance. The quandary is, do you want a good mark or a bad one in Ignorance 101? And would you want to be asked to teach on it? Thankfully, Firestein’s colleagues accepted his invitation to present the most puzzling problems in their field, and it was a popular course. This perceptive sort of ignorance leads to good questions and successful research programmes. As Einstein said, “Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.”
Excerpt from GOD IN THE LAB: HOW SCIENCE ENHANCES FAITH by Ruth M. Bancewicz. Reprinted by arrangement with Monarch Books, an imprint of Lion Hudson PLC (UK). Copyright © 2015 by Ruth M. Bancewicz
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/life-in-the-lab