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13 Mar, 2018


Why I Do Science?

For an outsider, the job of a scientist is a mystery. What motivates the scientists to ask fundamental questions about the workings of nature. In this article, Dr. Pavan Kumar shares his reasons to pursue science.

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To me science is a form of human expression. It adds the utilitarian aspect to the society. Also, the other dimension that science inculcates is the way of thinking and looking at the world. Science facilitates a metaphorical spectacle to view the universe.

In India, December is a month when you meet a lot of people, especially if you are an academic on a semester break. Invariably one is traveling on conference, or is on an outing with family during this month. Many a times, you meet new people, especially if you are traveling to new places. A general question people ask is: what do you do for a living? This is easy to answer ( I am a scientist / professor working at IISER ...blah..blah..), but once in a while somebody enquires : why do you do science? As always, the why questions are not trivial, and needs a bit of thinking.

When I was asked about this why question recently, my 'short answer' was: because I like asking questions. Later, I thought about this question, and below is my 'not-so-short' answer:

1. A Playground to wonder - The main driving factor of why I chose science is that I love asking questions and wonder about it. I found that, science and scientific research gives me a metaphorical playground to wonder about questions I have in my mind. In fact, I earn my living doing this! For me this is of fundamental importance to my living: the freedom to ask questions. In an essence, doing research is all about asking questions and trying to find out an answer.

The answer you may find need not be complete ( or correct ), so you will have to again ask another question to verify that answer, and this process continues over many iterations, until you have viewed the answer from various different perspectives, and have come to a satisfactory answer. Remember that there is always room to ask more questions, so the process never ends. But you are allowed to pause or switch to a new question, after you have asked many questions. As you may observe, what drives you forward is the question, and this process of "Q & A" is perpetual in research, and I absolutely love it.

2. Mind + Hands - Being an experimentalist, I get a great intellectual kick by asking questions and creating new things in the lab. I can see how ideas in our minds can ( or cannot ) be realized by working with our hands, and this is a tremendously exhilarating, enabling and humbling process. Whenever you build a new instrument ( an optical instrument in our case ), it is no more just an equipment, but it is a piece of art built with labor of love. In a strange way, one also forms a bond with the instrument you build. That feeling is unique to the creator, and many of my students have tasted this high.

3. Visiting the past - I love history, especially history of science. It gives me an opportunity to intellectually explore the past in detail. In order to formulate a question, I need to understand the history behind the question. I need to know what other people have thought about the question, and how they have approached and addressed it. Science, after all, is built on ideas from the past and present, so knowing the history is vital. In a fast-paced world, this ability to explore the past is rare, but in research it is prevalent.

4. Science as human expression - Human being is a social animal. They interact, talk, exchange ideas and learn. To me science is a form of human expression. It adds two important dimensions to society. The obvious one is the utilitarian aspect. Science benefits mankind through its application. In fact everything around our materialistic world is thanks to science and its off-shoot - technology. The non-obvious dimension that science inculcates is the way of thinking and looking at the world. Science facilitates a metaphorical spectacle to view the universe. As Feynman describes beautifully in this video, science helps you to appreciate the world you live in, just as art does.

5. Test of the self - A scientist needs all the ability that any top professional needs: endurance, concentration, time- and people-management skills, and deeper understanding of ethics, rights and duties. Doing scientific research, especially as a profession, needs coordinating and interfacing with people. And wherever there are people, there are infinite parameters to deal with. Doing science is not just about being in the lab or at your desk/board; it is an activity which generally happens in sync with a community. Interacting with such a community, interestingly, will bring the individual in you. It will help you identify yourself and differentiate from others, in a positive way. I have realized and understood myself more and better by interacting with others than by keeping thoughts to myself.

This process of self-realization by communicating with the outside world has been a great learning experience. You expose yourself not only to new science, but also to new ways of living and thinking, especially when you travel and meet new people from different cultures. This exposure to the unknown has added a new dimension to my views and has enriched my life. After all, diversity has its use.

So, these are the main reasons why I do science. Doing what we do as profession is an extremely personal thing. Not everybody gets an opportunity to do what they want, but if you get it, you better nurture it with love and passion. As the English poet Alexander Pope said "On life's vast ocean diversely we sail. Reasons the card, but passion the gale."

So add more gale to your life...and wonderful years ahead !

G.V.Pavan Kumar is an associate professor of physics and he leads an experimental research group of Photonics and Optical Nanoscopy at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune, India. He maintains a blog where he shares interesting science articles and stories. This piece originally appeared in this blog.