INDIANAPOLIS—The National Science Foundation’s annual symposium concluded Monday, with the 1,500 scientists in attendance reaching the consensus that science is hard.
“For centuries, we have embraced the pursuit of scientific knowledge as one of the noblest and worthiest of human endeavors, one leading to the enrichment of mankind both today and for future generations,” said keynote speaker and NSF chairman Louis Farian. “However, a breakthrough discovery is challenging our long-held perceptions about our discipline—the discovery that science is really, really hard.”
Social scientists sometimes take flak from physical scientists for not doing “real science.” If you’re a social scientist and you’ve experienced this, you may appreciate the following excerpt from “The Really Hard Science” by Michael Shermer (Scientific American, September 16, 2007):
Over the past three decades I have noted two disturbing tendencies in both science and society: first, to rank the sciences from “hard” (physical sciences) to “medium” (biological sciences) to “soft” (social sciences); second, to divide science writing into two forms, technical and popular. And, as such rankings and divisions are wont to do, they include an assessment of worth, with the hard sciences and technical writing respected the most, and the soft sciences and popular writing esteemed the least. Both these prejudices are so far off the mark that they are not even wrong.
I have always thought that if there must be a rank order (which there mustn’t), the current one is precisely reversed. The physical sciences are hard, in the sense that calculating differential equations is difficult, for example. The variables within the causal net of the subject matter, however, are comparatively simple to constrain and test when contrasted with, say, computing the actions of organisms in an ecosystem or predicting the consequences of global climate change. Even the difficulty of constructing comprehensive models in the biological sciences pales in comparison to that of modeling the workings of human brains and societies. By these measures, the social sciences are the hard disciplines, because the subject matter is orders of magnitude more complex and multifaceted.
The remainder of Shermer’s essay discusses the relationship between theory, observation, data, and communication. Definitely worth reading, if you’re interested.
Proust was a Neuroscientist explores the sometimes curious relationship between art and science. In each chapter, author Jonah Lehrer reveals how a particular artist—Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Auguste Escoffier, Marcel Proust, Paul Cézanne, Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf—anticipated later discoveries by neuroscientists. Simultaneously, Lehrer considers how the artists themselves were influenced by scientific thinking at the time. Even if science isn’t your cup of tea, Lehrer’s insights into the artists’ goals, thought processes, and influences should prove fascinating.