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5 truths you should know about pursuing pure sciences


Pugazh Arasu

Feb 11, 2021

Have you wanted a learners perspective of science? Were you looking for an opinion? You're in the right place.

It's about model building, not the truth necessarily

Science is often pitched as the search for truth, the search for the fundamental building blocks of nature. Well, although that's true overall, it doesn't present the whole picture. Often times, scientists are only building a mathematical model or a representation of the actual world. This picture represents it the best:

5 truths you should know about pursuing pure sciences beyond 8 cover

Taken from "Road to Reality" by Roger Penrose

The process is iterative, we build models, check them against experimental observations and refine them. Therefore sometimes old ideas can get overthrown to be replaced. This incremental loop of refining models represents science the best: it is a process rather a giant library of "facts". Although, this sounds a lot less exciting than what usually makes rounds in the news, this is what learning science feels like.

Meritocracy is a myth; Ranking up in science is absurdly hard

5 truths you should know about pursuing pure sciences beyond 8 3

Growing up, I really wanted to solve all these mysteries and someone land a job in CERN (that plan is still in place just not with the same level of hope). It can take on average 7 years before you secure a permanent position . And to get there you'd need to work in a string of temporary positions (termed post-doctoral degrees: you research but unlike a PhD it lasts for a shorter term and the demands vary). Yes, that's what it is :/ There are too many folks applying for too little positions, so science now has a lot more temporary posts than permanent ones. Few have likened this to the economic pyramid to drug gangs ironically. So trying to rank up, can make you feel like Sisyphus sometimes (for the other parts you'd feel like Kafka).

Breakthroughs are rare and exceptionally difficult

Most of the time when the public hears about science, they are often told about the things we know and how certain we are of them. But nobody dares to mention the years of effort that went behind it or the number of false starts it took. For instance, let's look at this picture

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At this point, this is just a part of pop culture. but nobody dared to mention this:

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Einstein's Zurich notebook, from:

or the decade of false starts that Einstein would face until 1915. It took more than hundred years to get from Einstein to the EHT picture. That's how difficult things can be. So one must not judge a field based off the success it is currently enjoying, for all you know it could be temporary or the result of an arduous struggle.

So often as it happens (just as I did), students will enroll themselves onto to a course from having pop science books or believing in what the media tells them. This almost always paints an optimistic (or pessimistic) picture of the field. This leads to what I would dub the "grand disillusionment", that happens when the student realizes the amount of knowledge they need to master before they get to something exotic or that they have simply been mislead from the very beginning.

So what should you do? How should you pick your major? Well, it's about the little things in my opinion. Do you enjoy spending time with the subject? I think that's the only think that can probably function as long term predictor of whether or not one can handle the course or spend time in contributing to the field. The knowledge of pop-science does turn out to be empty handed however exciting it may sound.

The current schooling system actively bets against science

Today's education system is to put it lightly messed up. It actively goes out of it's way to crush down imagination. Unlike what is presented in high school, science isn't a subject, it is a process. Often times facts and concepts are presented with experimental evidence. But, how can you trust in science then? Well that's the power and beauty of science, there's always room for improvement.

5 truths you should know about pursuing pure sciences beyond 8 1

This often obscures why we were looking for an explanation in the first place. Putting simply, schooling in it's current state is about ticking off boxes rather than thinking outside it. As Feynman put it,

You cannot get educated by this self-propagating system in which people study to pass exams, and teach others to pass exams, but nobody knows anything. You learn something by doing it yourself, by asking questions, by thinking, and by experimenting.

                                                           From Surely you're joking Mr. Feyman

This importance to the inner voice is termed as " Heutagogy ". But what does it's opposite, pedagogy do? It almost acts like as a propagation platform dogma and authoritarianism. Which is patently the opposite of science. To quote Feynman again,

Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts. When someone says 'science teaches such and such', he is using the word incorrectly. Science doesn't teach it; experience teaches it

                                                      From "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out"

This isn't helped by the fact that experts pen down most of the texts or learning resources today, they are more likely to suffer from the ' curse of knowledge ' than someone who has just recently mastered the subject. This is why noted scholars such as Lee Smolin are calling for reform at the grassroots and funding level (see " Why no new Einstein ").

Social and psychological biases are littered over science

Sociological and biases permeate science. After all, science is practiced by humans. But this can't be just reduced to "oh we're all not sharp edges" or "it's just a few bad apples". It is systemic. Why would I claim so?

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Let me elaborate with two examples: the gender and the obsession with "beauty" in Physics. "In 2018 women made up 57.5% of all undergraduate students in the UK, but only 22.2% of physics undergraduates – and only 1.7% of all physics undergraduate students were black women" ( source ).

The search for "beauty" in equations has dominated physics for quite a while (since the 50s), this has been nothing less than a disaster. This lead to something called the "Minimal Supersymmetric Standard Model", whose predictions have been falsified and some of aspects of the theory still remain vague .

For more have look at this Physics world article that talks about both of the biases and the infamous "Strumia incident" or watch Sabine Hossenfelder break this down:

But these are issues tied to people whose attitude can be altered as time progresses, but is there a structural issue? YES! Citations i.e. the number of references a particular article gets is problematic. This is because citations measure popularity, not research impact. This is the academic equivalent of posting for the likes as Sabine Hossenfelder explains:

This is a dangerous trend that has steadily held it's place for quite sometime. At the end of the day, scientists too are humans and are thus prone to the same biases. Degrees or years of training do not clamp down on the biases mentioned as do not have sessions or courses regarding cognitive biases or philosophy. Change is on the way, but science is far from ideal.

Final Thoughts

If my childhood idealism was a beautiful painting understanding these things felt like someone scribbled over it. I keep coming back to this quote for closure

The search for truth is more precious than its most assured possession.

                                                                                           -  Gotthold Lessing

Pugazh Arasu is a senior in college majoring in theoretical physics with interests in mathematics, philosophy and computer science. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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