The Art of science

 In his book, the Art of Scientific Research, William Beveridge said that “Paradoxical as it may at first appear, the fact is that scientific research is an art, not a science”. This blog aims to explore some of the ways that we can improve our practice of the art of scientific research.

Growing up, I liked to read biographies of great scientists. I remember reading in the biography of Ernest Rutherford, the discoverer of the transmutation of elements and the nuclear structure of the atom, that when he was the director of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, he would sometimes walk through the lab late in the evening and would tell the students and postdocs who were still working “You should stop working now. Better to go home and think”. Whether true or not, this story illustrates an important point.   Often scientists are so focused on the task at hand, so intent on solving the immediate problem before them, so absorbed in the “working” that they are not looking at the bigger picture, not “thinking” about why they are doing the experiment or what they hope to gain from it, or how it fits in with the larger framework of research in the larger scientific community.

I think this is  specially true about the non-scientific aspects of research. To give a simple example, everything published in a scientific paper should be objective and rigorous. However, whether your results will be published in a high-profile journal depends on the much more subjective and ill-defined concepts of “importance” and “interest”.   Similarly, picking a research project requires evaluating whether the project is doable, important and interesting. All of these are adjectives do not describe something measurable and are not scientific. Yet, they represent concepts that are vital for the professional success of the scientist.

It seems to me that it is precisely these aspects of science that require the most thinking and that are usually not taught formally but are acquired from experience. So, in this blog thread, I would like to share my thoughts on the process of scientific research in the hope of organizing my own thinking about these topics and providing useful insights for the readers.

On the macro level, we can divide scientific research per se into roughly five stages – picking a research topic, identifying a concrete problem to focus on, performing the experiments, drawing conclusions and writing the paper. In addition, there are also the auxiliary aspects of scientific research such as writing grant proposals, working together with collaborators in other research groups and presenting the work at conferences.

In the next several posts, I would like to explore the initial stages of the research process.


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