A colleague mentioned the other day that younger scientists may fear getting involved with certain kinds of potentially fruitful research because they risk hurting their careers by flirting with what is now scientific heterodoxy. My colleague’s concern is that science itself could be missing out on new discoveries because of professional pressure, real or imagined, on younger scientists to conform to established ideas, for fear of suffering in their careers. That brought to mind a passage from “The Quantum and the Lotus,” a book-length dialogue between Tibetan Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, who was a geneticist before leaving science to become a monk, and Trinh Xuan Thuan, a University of Virginia astronomer. Excerpt:
Matthieu: Einstein also said, “On principle, it is quite wrong to try founding a theory on observable magnitudes alone. In reality the very opposite happens. It is the theory which decides what we can observe.”
Trinh: Charles Darwin, the father of the theory of evolution, had a revealing story to tell about that. During his travels he spent a whole day on a riverbank and noticed nothing special, nothing but pebbles and water. Eleven years later he returned to the same spot, but now, owing to his subsequent studies, he was expecting to find evidence of an ancient glacier. Sure enough, this time, the evidence was blindingly obvious. Not even an extinct volcano could have left more visible traces of its past activity than this ancient glacier. Darwin only found what he was looking for when he knew what he was looking for. There are countless similar examples.
M.: Scientists also tend to fit new facts into preexisting conceptual models and avoid calling into question the fundamental precepts of the field they’re working in.
T.: Yes, but, that said, sometimes when new facts turn up that don’t fit into an existing framework, a scientific revolution, or paradigm shift, is kicked off. This also happens when geniuses spot connections between phenomena that were previously thought to be separate. Norwood Russell Hanson, a historian of science, remarked, “The paradigm observer is not the man who sees and reports what all normal observers see and report, but the man who sees in the familiar objects what no one else has seen before.” Newton understood gravity when he saw the link between an apple falling to the ground and the motion of the Moon aroudn the Earth. Relativity became clear to Einstein when he grasped the interconnection between time and space. But such imaginative achievements don’t happen purely by chance. They result from years of learning and thought.