Friday, August 29, 2008

Parameter check

I was working away this afternoon, continuing to wrestle with a sticky problem dealing with numerical differential equations solutions in my model – an issue that has ultimately been underlying much of my difficulties for the last several months likely. Sometimes, however cleverly you program something, numerics just won’t do the trick, as a problem is too hard or too picky to small errors. Talking about this problem with my adviser resulted in a sort of reality check, which I prefer here to think of as a parameter check, since I’m skeptical that what we do is easily related to reality. Turns out that making the parameters of the model much more akin to the actual limitations of biological reality seems to shift the functional forms into something much more easily and accurately resolved by numerical solution methods. Poof. Just like that. Most everything runs more smoothly, accurately and rapidly in this different region of parameter space. So that’s nice.

I mention all of this because it’s a nice new development in my project, but more significantly because it sort of book-ends a train of thought I’ve been bouncing around in my head this evening. I guess I’ve been reality checking science and my motivation and participation in it. Part of this train of thought is also attributable to a book I’ve just finished reading, “The Immense Journey” by Loren Eisley, an anthropologist, naturalist and scientist of the last century. The book was published in the 1940s, and Eisley himself passed away in the late 1970s. In this book, he covers concepts of evolution and scientific history as applied to the origins of life from matter, and humanity from other life forms. He talks about both early scientific theories, and how they changed through time, leading up to ‘current’ understandings. And now ‘current’ is some 60 years later. We have a lot more information drawn from paleontological findings, improved dating techniques, and advances in genetics and biotechnology. Some of this information provides answers to the conjectures Eisley made, and not always confirmation at that.

So we have a better, or at least more complete, story to tell know about the origins of life, how it changes over time, and how we are connected to it. And it strikes me that quite a lot of science is like this – a detailed story seeking to explain sets of observations made about the world. But that’s not all – as I’ve been observing this summer, a great deal more accompanies this purported goal of science, consisting mainly of hoops that have to been navigated successfully in order to secure funding, publish journal articles, obtain and maintain collaborations. This is stuff that you don’t hear about as often as being a major component of a scientist’s job – they’re just the pasty, safety goggle, lab-coat sporting, caffeine addicted, more or less nutty and socially inept people permanently on the verge of major breakthroughs, right?

I’m feeling a little jaded about science and my participation in it currently. Reading historical accounts of science, I’m given the distinct impression that just a few decades or centuries ago, there were major questions facing science – questions rather clearly defined and sources of great mystery, which inspired heroic efforts and intellectual feats on the part of the towering scientific figures we know and love… Mendel; Darwin; Franklin, Watson and Crick; etc, etc. (being most familiar with biology, I’ll stick to examples from this field, knowing that similar things could be said of other disciplines). Important theories regarding the processes governing the changing tapestry of biological life generation to generation were secured. So much of the work done since the formation of these theories has consisted of case studies illustrating the successful application of these theories to various and sundry biological systems and organisms. But where are the big unknowns, the big mysteries remaining to be answered, without which nothing else quite makes sense? I feel like they’re not there. Or if they are, they aren’t nearly so well defined and acknowledged as the mysteries of previous eras. It seems to me that right now, the bulk of scientific work is concerned with tidying up all of the details left behind in the wake of these theories. Figuring out how they act in a plethora of different systems, many of which, granted, have fascinating quirks and intriguing features.

But where are we headed? What is next on the horizon? What questions loom unanswered, and what are the necessities which drive us to find their solutions? Where is science taking us? Are we at the point where we’re pushing beyond the realm of realistic pursuits (‘parameters’) into regions of greater difficulty and little return? Should we pause for a while, reflect on what we already know and the significant challenges that we already face, and say to ourselves “Wow. Maybe we know enough for right now. Maybe we need to spend more time making use of our knowledge to change the way that we live and our society operates, if we want to stick around and maybe someday have the leisure to seek out new questions”. It just seems like at some point, if we don’t pay attention, the juggernaut of science will come to a crashing halt, as we realize that for all of the data and theories and papers and presentations we’ve amassed, we never paid attention to the important things that we already knew, back when there was still time to put knowledge into practice for good. Fanatically struggling to pin down the last little details, will we forget to pay attention to the broad messages already known? I guess this is the balance between the pure and theoretical and the applied and messy business of practicality.

Maybe it’s arrogant to think that we’ve solved all of the major mysteries we’ll face, or maybe it’s a factor of youth and inexperience. But I think the balance that it highlights between considering the important allocation of effort to theory AND application is really worth some thought. Certainly it’s a question that has been giving me some trouble, as I do a lot of theoretical work, but in looking back, what drew me to science originally was the application – the part where you do things and touch things and see what comes back at you. And in particular, the part where your actions have a tangible, perceptible and positive influence on the world. Having spent the last three months of my life living as close as I ever have the lifestyle of a scientific researcher and theoretician, able to focus intensely on research, I feel that all my work and theories and progress don’t mean so very much in the end. Yeah, I know it’s only 3 months of work. But I feel like even if I were to answer every last little question I have about the system I’m studying, the sum and total of those results still wouldn’t mean anything in the end.

Partly I think this is a function of the tendency in science now for research resulting in a paper or grant funding to arise from the ability of a scientist to sink deeply into academic literature, and then dig a little hole – the narrower and more specific the better. From that hole, we dredge up every last thing we can find, until we become the unquestioned experts and lords of an almost infinitesimal domain of knowledge. And this forms the basis of a successful academic career. And this is the kind of process I’ve been participating in for at least two of my three ongoing areas of research. Productive – yes, in a career and academic sense. Meaningful – you tell me. The only people I can even talk to about what I do in anything but the broadest terms are immediate members of my lab, my adviser, or maybe a field of a hundred academics most of whom I’ve never met nor interacted with.

One year later, I’m still wrestling with the process of applying to graduate school. I think a major part of my challenge here is that a part of me is really rebelling against this tendency towards specialization. If you have a passion for a narrow topic, choosing a graduate school, discipline and adviser all become much more straight forward. I, with my general curiosity, and increasing distaste for extreme specialization, am finding it very hard to identify who I’d like to work with, because each faculty adviser has their own subject niches. I feel like once I choose, I’ll be pigeon-holed.

So what should I do? Choose to play the game, pick a grad school, adviser and a topic and dive in? Is it possible to remain general, to keep an eye on the general directions of an entire field in a critical and significant way and not get lost in minutia? If I dig myself a nice, tidy academic hole, beyond the ‘success’ that that path could bring me in the context of my field, am I still being useful and doing worthwhile things with my life? Certainly that’s what a lot of people would like me to do, and they seem to think I’d be quite good at it. Or should I check out, say so long suckers, and start participating in actively changing the world, implementing what we already know about how we need to change our lifestyles and communities to become environmentally sustainable? It seems like I could keep feeding the driving curiosity that first brought me to science on the vast libraries of things that are known for the rest of my life and still leave so much unlearned. Would that be satisfying enough for me, especially if I were able to lie down to rest each day able to say “Well, I tried to change the world today. That’s something.”?

This has turned out to be a rather enormous post, but it’s been brewing for a while now. Kudos if anyone read it all. If you did, I would really love to hear what you think – this is a little out of my normal style, but these are things I’m seriously thinking about and don’t have answers for. I know for sure that at least two of the maybe three people people total who read this blog are involved in science in varying ways. Any thoughts guys?


Karina said...

Lately I've been struggling with feeling like no matter what research I do I won't make a difference like I wanted to, and it's disheartening. I think it was perhaps a bit naive of me to think that I could make any difference at all in Ukenzagapia as an outsider. The best I can hope to do is give support and opportunities to Ukenzagapians.

I also felt like applying to graduate school would pigeon-hole me for the rest of my professional career. It seemed like such a daunting decision to choose an area of research. Time and time again people told me that I wouldn't be stuck- it was just a place to start. I finally embraced that and chose a starting place. We'll see where I end up.

You know, a year off really isn't that much. I quickly realized in my "year off" that I still didn't know what I wanted to do- not just in research but in life- and one year became a few. I don't regret it in the slightest. If you need more time to test out alternatives to grad school and academia, then by all means go for it.

sarcozona said...

Maybe we have to really understand the implications and hows and whys of our big discoveries before we can move on to new "big" questions.