17 March 2008

Science is fun

"There's no importance whatsoever. I'm just doing it for the fun of it."
Richard Feynman explaining to Hans Bethe the reason why he started working on the physics problem that later developed into the project that eventually earned him a Nobel Prize.*
The dictum that science is and should basically be a fun activity is not stressed enough by scientists, especially in scientific publications. The lighter side of doing scientific research is especially obvious to those of us who do field work. Yet scientific reports are often chastised for being rather dull and for not revealing the general feeling of enjoyment the scientists get from doing research.

Earlier today I was reading an almost 40-year old paper** on the sand-beach isopod Tylos punctatus. It was a pleasant surprise to come across a rare admission by scientists in a serious scientific paper that field work is actually a fun activity. Here is the very last paragraph of the cited paper (underlining mine):
T. punctatus is enormously abundant on El Estero Beach: up to 23,000/m2 when buried in the sand. Its great abundance, its simple life history, and its simple and pleasant habitat, all make it an excellent animal for research into population dynamics. We cannot now do this research ourselves, but we hope someone else will. It would be fun.
Why don’t we admit openly and announce to the general public more frequently in our writings that scientific research is indeed a fun activity?

*There are slightly different versions of this quote in Feynman’s own accounts of it, but the basic idea is the same. For example, compare the version here, which is from Feynman, R. (1985), Surely you're joking Mr. Feynman, with that in Feynman & Sykes (1994), No Ordinary Genius.

**W. M. Hamner; Michael Smyth; E. D. Mulford, Jr. (1969). The Behavior and Life History of a Sand-Beach Isopod, Tylos Punctatus. Ecology, 50:442-453.


Dave Coulter said...

Is there a good book about or by Feynman you could recommend as an introduction? I have certainly heard of him over the years, but I want to learn more... Thanks!


The only book about/by Feynman that I've read is Surely you're joking Mr. Feynman. It was a funny book.

Dave Coulter said...

Thanks! Off to the library I go...