Part of a Series of Excerpts from Prof. Sundar Sarukkai’s book, ‘What is Science?’

Dr. Sarukkai elucidates on the many things scientists do since it is often said that science is what scientists do.

“Scientists go to office just like countless others. They have various tasks in their offices. They teach (if there are students), they write (when they are writing papers), they do administrative tasks, they look after various chores in the department and in the organization. They also spend appreciable amount of time talking to colleagues, students and others. (And these days they spend an inordinate amount of time on the net.) They spend a good deal of time drinking coffee and tea. Part of the folklore of scientific activity is about doing science in these tea breaks. There are numerous anecdotes about how great ideas emerged during these informal tea meetings.”

“To indulge in some stereotyping: they argue endlessly, they often question what others take for granted, they can be polemical, they have great confidence in what they do and what science is like, they are also, quite often, very much conversant with the activities of the rest of the world. They are quite opinionated about politics and society. Many of them also have an interest in the arts.”

(Page 29)

“Scientists, contrary to popular myths about them, are not always sterile, logical beings. They lose their temper quite easily – perhaps this is their way of exemplifying this curious phrase, which is special to the Indian constitution, called ‘scientific temper’! Their disagreements among themselves and in meetings are rarely about science but about personalities. Good scientists often have strong personalities with clear views on what they like and dislike. The fights over grants and getting access to resources are legendary in the field of science. Quarrels over priority in research, taking control over laboratories and programs are endemic to science all over the world. Bitter feelings about science organizations like the science academies, politics over who is chosen into these academies as well as politics over prizes are also very common.”

(Page 30)

He also comments on how science is not a homogenous community-

“Scientists and students of science are well aware of a strongly entrenched hierarchy in science. In the classical tradition of science, theoretical physics had greater prestige and merit as compared to other sciences, including chemistry and biology. Within the sciences, there is often a well established intellectual hierarchy between theory and experimental science. Within theory, there is again an accepted distinction between the merits (or meritoriousness) of those who do fundamental theory (like quantum theory or particle physics) as against those who do ‘phenomenological’ theory (typically like those working in solid state physics and other fields). Such a hierarchy influences the choices of the ‘best’ students who often take up research positions based on this hierarchy.”

(Page 30)

Dr. Sarukkai further explains how similar hierarchies can be observed between science and engineering. Then, he presents the following as the underlying causes-

“The dispute between scientists belonging to different disciplines is partly catalysed by over-specialization, a characteristic endemic to all sciences. Often, within a same department, one would find scientists who do not understand their colleagues.”

“Given that the value of science rests upon the importance of newness and originality, and there is a strong reward system for discoveries and inventions, there is indeed a tendency among scientists to fight over these resources, awards and so on, particularly because in their view the value of these awards and grants often privilege one kind of science over another.”

(Page 31)

“Much of this behaviour of scientists reflects an essential nature of science, that of competition. The narratives of science, which create a public image for science and influences students who enter into science, quite often stress, explicitly or implicitly, the notion of competition. The first lessons in science begin with the idea of problem solving. Exams designed to test science often privilege speed in solving problems. In the activity of science, this common maxim is indeed true: nobody remembers who comes second in a race.”

“Moreover , in the very idea of originality there is an element of human desire to be acknowledged as the leader, as being unique. In fact, the other important character of science- its strong stand against copying and plagiarism, and thus its support to establishing structures of copyright- is primarily to protect the holy grail of science, namely, originality.”

(Page 32)
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