The name we give to bright ideas

From The Book of Strange New Things:

… I said that if science could come up with something like the Jump it could surely solve a problem like that. Severin seized hold of that word, “science.” Science, he said, is not some mysterious larger-than-life force, it’s just the name we give to bright ideas that individual guys have when they’re lying in bed at night, and that if the fuel thing bothered me so much, there was nothing stopping me from having a bright idea to solve it …

6 thoughts on “The name we give to bright ideas

  1. I have a real problem with the sentence, ‘ “science.” Science, he said, is not some mysterious larger-than-life force, it’s just the name we give to bright ideas that individual guys have when they’re lying in bed at night.’

    As a scientist and the wife of a scientist, I want to push back against the idea that science is something done by lone geniuses. It’s a much more collaborative and incremental process than in pop culture portrayals. We scientists shouldn’t pretend to fit into the pop culture mold, but gently push back with realistic portraits of our lives.

    And that guy lying in bed dreaming of BIG IDEAS? His wife might be awake in the middle of the night, too. Only she’s too busy breast-feeding, soothing a child with night terrors, or doing the house cleaning that he chose not to do. True story. For years, I subsisted on sleep between 2 and 6 AM.

  2. GMGM is right: science isn’t primarily about lone geniuses and their sparky magical ideas. It’s a set of methodologies and institutional practises that emphasise certain values (notably empiricism) and have been shown to converge on truth (peer-reviewed journals, universities, transparency of methods). Science is deeply and fundamentally collaborative (between scientists; and between them and nature, which is in the end the sole authority on truth).

    What Severin describes sounds much more like the kinds of people who become various kinds of vacuous self-promoters (entrepreneurs, gurus, self-help manual writers) than painstakingly walk the long and detailed road to empirical truth.

  3. When I read this I had almost the opposite take on it from BMGM. I saw it as demystifying science, not promoting a lone genius myth. It’s not some “mysterious larger-than-life force” but something mere mortals can participate in. If a problem bothers you enough, try to do something about it.

    I agree that entire scientific theories seldom pop into a lone daydreamer’s mind. But progress does often come in little flashes of insight, perhaps in bed or some other place away from work, even if that insight is just one person in a large team having an idea of how to make something a little better. I know I’ve had days where my morning shower was more productive than the rest of the day combined.

  4. Well, you’ve read the book and have a handle on the original context I lack. The demystifying aspect didn’t come across as strongly to me as the misleadingly reductive, at least from the quote alone. But agree on demystifying being be a good thing. ‘Citizen science’, amateur astronomy, some aspects of entrepreneurial culture, school hackathons etc can all contribute to that. Anyway you prompted me to look the book & author up. One more for the reading list, thanks.

  5. Ccir: I have great hopes for amateur science. There are things amateurs can work on that professionals can’t. Professional scientists have to work on things that can pull in grants and lead to publication. Anything too small or unconventional is unlikely to get funding and publication.

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