The joy of science

Jim Al-Khalili is Distinguished Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Surrey and one of Britain’s best-known science communicators. He has written numerous books, incl The world according to physics; Quantum: A Guide for the Confused; and Life on the Edge: The Age of Quantum Biology.

Below, Jim shares 5 key insights from his new book, The joy of science. Listen to the audio version — read by Jim himself — on the Next Big Idea app.

1. In science, it’s okay to change your mind.

It’s okay to admit your mistakes. In fact, if we never admit our mistakes, if we never change our minds, then we will never advance in science. We will all still think the way the ancient Greeks did – that there are four elements: earth, air, water and fire. As we learn, obtain more information, collect more data, make more observations, conduct experiments, and develop theories and hypotheses, our understanding grows. And inevitably this means that what we thought before is not right and we have to revise our views. So admitting mistakes isn’t a weakness of science—in fact, it’s a strength.

Unfortunately, if you think about politics, the opposite is true. Politicians hate to admit mistakes or show that they have changed their minds. I think the world would be a much better place if more people were willing to accept that they might be wrong about something and change their minds. We should always have uncertainty and open minds. In science, the concept of uncertainty is very important. That doesn’t mean we don’t know; means we i know what we don’t know. Voltaire once said, “Doubt is not a pleasant state, but certainty is absurd.”

2. Examine your own biases before challenging those of others.

We are constantly bombarded with information. Life really was simpler before the internet. I’m not saying the internet is a bad thing – it’s wonderful! It transforms society. But in the past, we’d read one newspaper, probably watch one cable TV channel, form our opinions that way, and surround ourselves with people and ideas we already agree with.

Now, with the internet, every opinion comes at us from every direction. And instead of becoming more enlightened and well-rounded as a society, we are becoming more polarized. We dig in our heels, build defenses, unwilling to see the other person’s point of view.

“Doubt is not a pleasant state, but certainty is absurd.”

Polarization of opinion does not work in science. Yes, there are scientists who stick dogmatically to whatever theory they have or whatever experimental result they have built their scientific reputation on, but generally the scientific method corrects this.

When a scientist usually presents an idea or makes a discovery or comes up with a new theory, he examines it very carefully. They’re testing it to the point of destruction—trying to figure out, “Well, what if I’m wrong? What if this is not correct? How can I test it? How can I be confident that what I’m saying is something right and real for the world?” Because, of course, if you publish your results in a scientific journal and they turn out to be wrong, well, that’s it – you have to change your mind you are So you rather find your mistakes than have other people point them out to you.

Why don’t we do this in everyday life? When arguing on social media, why don’t you think about why you believe what you believe before you dig in and accuse others of always being wrong?

3. Things are not always as simple as we would like them to be.

I’m sure you’ve heard of Occam’s Razor, the idea that the simplest solution, the simplest explanation, is usually the right one. This has been very useful in science over the years, but unfortunately it has infected wider thinking in society. It has evolved to mean: “I only want the simplest explanation; I’m not ready to elaborate. Don’t blind me with details.”

In today’s society, especially on social media, everything is reduced to a meme or a tweet. And that means that all the nuances in the debate, whether it’s politics or religion or broader moral and ethical issues, simply become black or white – the gray in between is lost.

Those who know much more than average about a particular complex problem facing society tend to also know the gaps in their knowledge. But they are not prepared to say that there is truth on both sides of the argument – ​​that you are right and that the other side is also right. In today’s society, if you take this view, both sides will attack you. They will say, “Either you are with me or you are against me.”

“In today’s society, especially on social media, everything is down to a meme or a tweet.”

Unfortunately, in the real world – as in many areas of science – things are more complicated than we would like them to be. So we have to admit it. Sometimes you have to dig a little and maybe find that there is a little nuance behind it and allow yourself to be open to expanding your view on a certain subject.

4. It’s okay to disagree and we should do so without being unpleasant.

Scientists claim – they have personal interests and biases. If you’ve built your reputation on a particular theory or experimental result, or published a particular paper that others say is wrong, you’re not going to agree with them. You will stand up and fight for your cause, for what you believe in. We debate and discuss, but that’s how we make progress. This goes back to one of my earlier points about how it’s good to admit your mistakes. We can disagree, and we do all the time, but it’s well-intentioned, or at least it should be.

And it should not be based on passionate, ideological convictions. But science isn’t priceless all the time, and what I’m talking about is more easily applicable to physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, and geology than, say, the social sciences. However, we should be able to disagree without worrying about scoring points. It’s not about winning arguments; it is an attempt to reach the truth of the matter.

5. Scientific understanding of the world not only empowers, but can also enrich our lives.

Having a more scientifically literate society is important. We learned this during the pandemic – we need to understand the pros and cons of wearing a mask, how viruses spread and the importance of vaccination. But even more generally than that, we need to know the benefits of flossing or recycling trash. So being more scientifically literate is empowering, especially as we face the challenges of the 21st century.

“Scientific understanding of the world is personally enriching—it contributes to the wonder of the world.”

Also, having a scientific understanding of the world is personally enriching – it adds to the wonder of the world. Isaac Newton, the great physicist who discovered that sunlight can be separated into the colors of the rainbow, was accused by the poet John Keats, who said: “You have broken the magic of the rainbow by dividing it into its prismatic colors.” Many scientists have argued vehemently against this view that understanding more about the rainbow can make it More ▼ beautiful. This does not detract from the mystery, as the great Richard Feynman once said.

For example, if you look at a rainbow in the sky and marvel at its beauty, science can help you add to that. What if I told you that no two people, even standing next to each other, can see the same rainbow? We all see our own, separate rainbow. This may sound crazy, but think about it: rainbows are formed by sunlight being reflected back by billions of water droplets from rain falling in the sky. Each spherical droplet of water takes that sunlight, breaks it up into its colors as it enters the water, bounces it off the back of that droplet, and then bounces back and comes out the front again somewhere else—and the different colors spread out, broken up and divided further. This is because each color has a different wavelength and each wavelength of light bends a different amount.

A particular droplet can send red light directly into my eyes, so I see red from that droplet – and of course, from many others. But someone standing next to me wouldn’t see red light coming from that droplet because the light would have to travel at a different angle. They would see their red light from different droplets. So each of us sees a rainbow coming towards us from different droplets in the sky. Everyone sees their own, unique rainbow.

And the other thing about rainbows is that we talk about them as a rainbow in the sky. But the rainbow is actually a full circle; it is only broken into an arc because the ground cuts it off. If you climb a mountain or look when you’re aboard an airplane—pilots see this under certain conditions—you’ll see that the rainbow is actually a full circle.

Isn’t it wonderful? That doesn’t make the arc boring. We have not made it sanitized, logical and rational and thus lost the beauty. We have added to beauty by knowing a little more about how the world works.

To listen to the audio version read by author Jim Al-Khalili, download the Next Big Idea app today:

Hear key insights in the next Big Idea app

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