19 January 2018

Behind the Scientist


I plan this year to pose some questions to some of the scientists I met over the years. But before I start those posts, I think it is fair if I answer those same questions too.
So here we go.
(Photo is me after Ph.D. graduation in Germany. Flowers are not for me. Tradition is that every newbie Ph.D. climbs up on the fountain in old square and put flowers somewhere on it, without falling into the water. I did it!)

When did you get first interest in science?

My guess would be in my early elementary school years. My mother got a children encyclopedia and as soon as I could read I started doing experiments from it. And I enjoyed doing little experiments and learning new stuff. Of course, there was a negative side of everything, as usually happens. This book brought me a nickname Encyclopedia and bullying in class because I wished to share with other kids all those awesome stuff I was learning about.

What motivated you to become a scientist?

The fact that I found every other job too easy. My parents kept telling me that I will have the same career for at least 40 years. So when I would try some job and master it in few months, all I could think about is how extremely boring would be to do the same thing day in, day out for four long decades. I searched for a job that will not be boring and ended up as a scientist.

Can you give an example of how you use your scientific training or science in your everyday life?

I was not aware of how much I do use the scientific method in my everyday life until I got recently a seasonal job at a local company. Comparing how I handle problems and emergencies with some of my new working colleagues, it became obvious to me that I do use exactly same problem-solving techniques in my life that I learned to use when tackling complex issues of scientific research. That’s why I’m eager to share those techniques with the rest of you in hope that will allow you to solve these pesky every day issues easier.
In essence, with a bit more observing, paying attention and accepting that all actions have consequences, the scientific method works miracles in predicting possible roadblocks in life that will hit tomorrow.
For instance, recently one of the coworkers (higher up in the pecking order) suggested shorter running of the ironing press so that pressed items are not burned, request that came out of the blue, with no burned items whatsoever. But you all know that when you are a new worker somewhere and someone higher up gives you instructions you have to obey them. Trouble is this means jerking the machine and breaking it sooner through rough treatment. Instead, I just reduced the temperature. The machine will last longer, and the fabric is not 'burned'.
The scientific method allowed me to see a problem from several angles and enabled me to choose the solution that will have the least negative consequences. My reasoning and solution were accepted by both of my direct supervisors, so now everyone is satisfied, a colleague who insisted on a lower temperature for fabric and my bosses who actually wish job well done.

How important is science for you?

Very. I see science and scientific method as the most effective methods humans have to discover the truth and reality. As such I wish to preserve it and teach as many people as possible how to use it every day. We live in a hugely technological society where technology advances offered countless ways for individuals to get up the human society pecking order. The problem is, using all those technology advances caused severe consequences and now we need science to save ourselves.

Fun incident from your research work?

Well, my first attempt at research, as undergrad student I was testing photomultipliers from Ice Cube neutrino telescope located at the South Pole. There I learned how careful one has to be when conducting any type of research. I was at DESY, near Berlin, Germany.
So my task was to monitor the behavior of the photomultiplier over one month. The detector was closed in the best possible approximation of the dark cavity. An unplugged chest freezer, insides padded with black fuzzy paper, the detector, wrapped in paper, together with the source, additional lid below the freezer lid, everything is done to prevent a single photon from the lab reach the detector. And it worked. The detector could go without seeing a single photon for days. On regular time intervals, one photon was fired from source and reaction of photomultiplier was measured. However, a few times per day we had a strange spike in photomultiplier measurements. Whether photon was fired or not photomultiplier reacted each working day around 8am, noon, 1pm, 5pm. It drove me and my supervisor crazy at first. We spent a few days trying to figure out why; what was going on. We spent days trying to figure out where extra photons are coming from. In the end, the fact that spikes happened during the working days, but not on weekends,  gave us a clue. There were no extra photons. We discovered that spike was caused by fluctuations in power due to the nearby construction site. The construction site was few blocks away, and spikes corresponded with their working hours. Each time they turned on or off their machines, they changed power in the power supply net and made photomultiplier react. All I can say is Germans have amazingly predictable working hours and lunch breaks. And photomultipliers are overly sensitive.

What do you think about the importance of science for humans?

Well, climate change forces us to use science to find solutions. Majority of people is not willing to make voluntary sacrifices. See, research in human nature showed that majority of us considers future selves strangers, someone way less important than our present selves. This means a majority of people will not do anything for a benefit that stranger in the future unless life forces them. This also means that if we wish to fix climate change, we will have to find solutions that are sustainable and does not require the willingness of average Joe to make a sacrifice.

What do you think about the current state of science and its relationship with society?

It is grim. We are in a sad phase of societal evolution. The increased corruption makes people turn to religion in the hope that religion will push morality on society and fix the issue. And that means turning away from science because science usually does not support favorite dogmas of religion.
It is not first-time societies went through this. Ancient Rome is one of the big examples of how knowledge can get lost. One of the biggest historical examples of the lost knowledge and negative effects of it is, of course, sanitation. Romans had it. It took us almost two millennia to get it back and prevent all those unnecessary epidemics that regularly killed people. I'm certain that the black plague that devastated Europe population would not happen if knowledge of sanitation and hygiene was not lost. And some of the Romans knowledge we still did not recover. Today, we still do not know how did ancient Romans make their concrete. The concrete that is more stable and more lasting than any we have today. The knowledge of Rome got lost in religious zeal that accompanied and followed its collapse.
I hope this time we will be able to stop loss of knowledge. And I have hope. Yes in the USA there is strong anti-science movement, but a situation in China is encouraging. There, astrophysicists complain about an onslaught of tourists visiting the new telescopes. Such reports make me smile. People are showing a big interest in science. All is not lost.

What improvements would you like to see?

The catch is, I’m not sure what will work. My whole blog is a consequence of my own morality forcing me to do something, to say something, to help somehow reverse this trend. Because, if enough people use scientific methods to tackle everyday issues, then maybe we can resist this mad dash downwards.

What do you think the average person should do?

Learn how the scientific method works and start applying it every day. It is an excellent tool for problem-solving and discovering the truth. Plus it helps you develop a kind of immunity towards fake news, cons, and scammers.

What do you think what average scientist should do?

Start communicating with the rest of humanity. Start teaching the scientific method to anyone willing to listen.

Tell a bit about your favorite pass time activity?

SciFi. Watching it, reading it, writing it. And, I am Trekkie, one of those who really follow the original Gene Roddenberry vision of better angels of human nature.

Anything else you wish to say?

Live Long and Prosper

No comments:

Post a Comment