Joined: 3 Apr 99
Hi! I'm Eric Korpela. You may know me from such blog posts as "Ewoks live under my deck" and "How Spock and Sylar are related." As part of my continuing series on what the heck scientists do, I'd like to talk about brains. You may ask, "What is it like in a scientist's brain?" Well, it's dark, it's moist, and it's as warm as Daytona in July.*. Just like it is in yours.
The real answer is that I can't really tell you what's going on inside anyone's head but mine. For example, I look at my wife and think, "Why is she carrying all the groceries? And how can I make her do that again next time?" I really have no clue. That's because I've only been me.
The way my brain works now is pretty different from the way it worked when I was starting college, so I'm pretty sure that most of what I do is learned behavior. If so, maybe this scientist's brain will tell us something. Let's start with my thought processes for an everyday task like seeing an article on The Huffington Post -- for example, this one: "Venus May Be Slowing Down, New ESA Data Suggests."
Phase 1: WTF?
You may think that reaction is a little extreme, and maybe it is. Scientists have different expectations from a headline than editors do. A scientist might think a headline should provide enough information that you can decide whether you want to read an article. An editor knows the headline is there to make you want to read the article by not providing enough information.
Oh, its rotation is slowing... Maybe that could happen.
Skepticism is a very important phase. Without it a budding scientist could end up thinking that the guy in the next dorm room developed an amazing artificial intelligence program and still be embarrassed 26 years later about falling for that ruse.
Of course, there are things I left out: the internal monologue of caluclating in my head (which I am not at all good at, so please don't check my math), staring blankly into space, one or more additional episodes of getting sidetracked by random thoughts.
What does this say about my approach to science? First, my initial instinct to something new and unexpected is to try and figure out why it's wrong. When I'm asked to be a peer reviewer for a journal, I do the same thing. If I can't tell why it's wrong, maybe it's right.
I won't say I do that for articles that aren't unexpected, unless I'm reviewing it. If this article had said that Venus was rotating at exactly the same rate it did 20 years ago, I probably would have said "Yeah? So what?" and wouldn't have read it at all.
Second, when I go in, I'm going in armed. I don't want to be told what's happening; I want my own guesses as to what's going on, and I want to know what the physical limits of the problem are before I start reading. Maybe I'll still be surprised. Or maybe I'll find something they didn't think of. Think of it as a game.
What does this mean to you? Not much, probably. Your life probably isn't changed much by how you read a science article. But I do recommend skepticism to everyone, especially regarding money or your health, or anytime someone else has a lot to gain and you have a lot to lose.
Byron Leigh Hatch @ team Carl Sagan
Joined: 5 Jul 99
Way to Go Eric!
Joined: 25 Feb 00
©2018 University of California
SETI@home and Astropulse are funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, NASA, and donations from SETI@home volunteers. AstroPulse is funded in part by the NSF through grant AST-0307956.