An Interplay of Extremes, the answers.

Dr Mark Ashdown
Kavli Institute for Cosmology, University of Cambridge

1- How do you involve your senses to perceive things that are orders of magnitudes larger than what your eye can see?

In astronomy we deal with things which are not only large and faint, but sometimes we can only detect them using wavelengths that the human eye cannot see. We use telescopes with very sensitive detectors or cameras to collect data from the sky. We use computers to analyse these data and render them as images we can perceive. We need to be able to interact with the data and visualise them in order to come to an understanding of the physical processes that underlie the things we observe.

2- How do you see the role of curiosity, creativity and play in scientific research?

Curiosity is what leads us into investigating things in the first place. It could be a big question like ‘How did the Universe begin?’, or it could be a small question about something we see in our day-to-day lives. Scientists never lose that sense of curiosity about the world. It continues to motivate us even when the world turns out to be a complicated place which does not necessarily respond to our questions with easy answers. Creativity comes in when we work out how to answer the questions that our curiosity drives us to ask. If have a new idea to explain some aspect of nature, you have to create a way to test it against reality.

3- Do you think that analytic methodologies, such as scientific methodology, take things apart in order to understand them or put things together in order to understand them as a whole in their own context?

Science does both of these things. The universe is complicated, so we have to break it down into smaller pieces and consider each of them on their own in order to learn about them in detail. Once you understand the individual pieces, then you can build them up again to form an understanding of the whole.
Joshua Lewis
Ph.D.
University of Cambridge

1- How do you involve your senses to perceive things that are orders of magnitudes larger than what your eye can see?

Our senses evolved to help keep us alive in the primitive world. Our noses are well developed to help us sense smoke from fires long  before they become a danger, and our eyes help us tell which fruits are ripe to eat and which are deadly. But like all scientific instruments our senses are optimised to operate in the most relevant range, and don’t work well outside of it. We have of course invented microscopes to help us see tiny things and telescopes to help us see large, far away things, but we do have a sense that helps us grasp what is beyond our senses. Obviously we can’t see the entire world, but using this sense Eratosthenes measured the world over two thousand years ago.

I’m talking about the sense of curiosity. Eratosthenes wanted to measure the world, so he sat down and had a think. He was a great mathematician so he figured out he could measure the earth if he could just measure the length of two  shadows cast by vertical sticks at two positions far apart at the same time of day. He used trigonometry and sticks, and inferred the circumference of the whole world. This ability to discern things far beyond what is directly relevant to our immediate survival is what makes humans unique, and it is our sense of curiosity that gives it to us.

2- How do you see the role of curiosity, creativity and play in scientific research?

Curiosity, creativity, and play are in my opinion central to research. We learn first through play, when you are a baby and you are figuring the world out you start off by just trying things out, waving your arms and legs about and touching things. We evolved to be curious and to play so that we could learn to be adaptable which helps us survive. If no human was ever curious about what was over the horizon, we would never have explored beyond east Africa, where the oldest human ancestor’s fossils are. And if we weren’t creative we would never have figured out how to tie a rock to a stick to make an axe, and if we hadn’t done that then we wouldn’t have started this thing we call science. Essentially curiosity, creativity and play are three of the defining human characteristics.

3- Do you think that analytic methodologies, such as scientific methodology, take things apart in order to understand them or put things together in order to understand them as a whole in their own context?

The ultimate aim of science is to understand everything to such a level that it is possible to predict everything in the universe. To create a Universal Model that lets you understand every interaction from the smallest fundamental particle to the full span of the universe. We are currently far from that point so we are still pulling apart natural systems to study them in greater depth. Experimentalists observe and dissect the world and theoreticians put the things they find out together and suggest what this all might mean. So some people do one, some do another, and some people do both.
Dr Giorgio Divitini
High Resolution Electron Microscopy Group,
Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy
University of Cambridge

1- How do you involve your senses to perceive things that are orders of magnitudes larger than what your eye can see?

Understanding and grasping of different lengthscales is very challenging for electron microscopy. Most of the things we research are well below any conventional human sensing (too small to see, too small to manipulate manually). It becomes crucial to get familiar with the “artificial sensing” we get with the instruments, a bit like one learns how to move around in a car as opposed to walking around – after a while you start using your instruments like extensions of your body – at least for microscopy. For a lot of the spectroscopy/indirect detection work it’s a lot more complicated to have a clear feeling for what is going on.

2- How do you see the role of curiosity, creativity and play in scientific research?

Curiosity tends to be a strong driver for scientific research, at least from a personal motivation perspective. This is not very encouraged by the limited funding available, which often forces research towards safe, publishable results. I think there is still space for curiosity and creativity in some contexts – for example, in the last 10 years the emergence of low-cost microcontrollers and sensors has greatly increased the rewards for creative, trial-and-error approaches.

3- Do you think that analytic methodologies, such as scientific methodology, take things apart in order to understand them or put things together in order to understand them as a whole in their own context?

As a Physicist, I think this can work in two different ways. To keep experiments simple and understandable, one designs tests that focus on just one parameter/phenomenon to be changing, breaking down a complex system into some manageable components and getting an understanding of the whole. On the other hand, it is sometimes possible to quite accurately model complex systems, at least within some constraints, without knowing the fine details (I quite like the psychohistory example from Asimov’s novels, but real-life approaches are, for example, a lot of fluid mechanics or high-speed trading).

Marina Velez
Ph.D.
Plymouth University

1- How do you involve your senses to perceive things that are orders of magnitudes larger/smaller than what your eye can see?

I sometimes close my eyes to perceive what I cannot see.

2- How do you see the role of curiosity, creativity and play in scientific research?

In my cross-disciplinary practice I often collaborate with scientists, who are very curious and full of questions about contemporary art as a discipline, mainly about things such as conceptual art. Most scientists describe themselves as creative and playful and they retain a wonderful child-like ability to be curious. Curiosity rather than creativity is what I believe both artists and scientists share in their disciplines.

3- Do you think that analytic methodologies, such as scientific methodology, take things apart in order to understand them or put things together in order to understand them as a whole in their own context?

Analytical thinking might not be the most intelligent way to approach critical questions in today’s problematics of ecologies and economies, such as, for instance, whether a tree is most valuable alive or cut down and manufactured into something. In thinking system theory tree, context, value, enquirer and question are connected and most systems, including areas that scientists research, are distorted when understood by analysis rather than within the context of a larger whole, which forms the basic principles of organisation of any given system. Methodologically speaking, scientists tend to ‘correct’ distortions in their research, whereas artists might tend to enhance them and ride with them.

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