Monthly Archives: September 2013

The Shape of Science to Come

I think enough time has passed to allow the pain of REJECTION to subside so that I can now post my short submission for the Nature magazine essay contest.  My strategy was to try to shoot the moon: take a risk and try to distinguish myself from a pack of trite “it’s-hard-to-be-a-scientist-in-the-age-of-reduced-funding/academic burdens/[other inconvenience or challenge that has existed for decades and is nothing new]” essays that typically represent these sorts of contests.  It didn’t work, but I will boast beforehand that I was selected as a finalist.


Long before deciding to wear a lab coat to work, I wanted to attend classes with a spiked mohawk. Instead of speaking next to a projection screen, I dreamed of being on stage in front of suburbia’s restless and marginalized. Before tuning pipettes at the bench, I was tuning guitar strings in my room. I wanted to be a punk rocker more than anything.

My rattle ‘n’ roll ambitions eventually deferred to my love of science, but the punk scene’s influence on me feels surprisingly stronger than ever. Science and graduate school have fomented, rather than extinguished, my inner punk. I suspect that most scientists have their own inner punk as well, and I strongly encourage them to embrace it. I would argue that doing so is deeply important for science’s continuing progress.

Punk does not simply refer to an aesthetic or music genre, nor is it a synonym for petulance or stridency. It is instead a mindset for many people, and even a complete worldview for some. At its most elementary level, the punk mindset stresses the challenging of one’s preconceptions about the world. It encourages the bold questioning of authority, doctrine and dogma in order to develop a deeper personal sense of meaning. Punk thus involves a process of discovery that I view as inherently complementary to science, which embodies many of the same principles.

The interaction between the punk mindset and science is best illustrated by some of the greatest and bravest theorists in history. One such thinker was the sixteenth century Italian friar Giordano Bruno, whose cosmological theories were a huge influence for his younger contemporaries Kepler and Galileo. Bruno accepted the Copernican heliocentric model of the Solar System, but took it a step further by abandoning the idea of a hierarchical universe in which the Earth and the Sun were perched in the center of it all. He introduced the concept of a homogenous universe: the Sun is essentially another star among many others in an infinite universe, and the Earth is just another heavenly body among innumerable others like it. This was a fantastically bold idea for his time because it directly contradicted the views of his church, the longstanding authority on science.

Although a religious person himself, I believe Bruno harbored a personal philosophy consistent with the modern punk outlook. As a young man in monastery he allegedly could not quell his appetite for forbidden books. A court of inquisition eventually found Bruno guilty of heresy, and he was burned at the stake. Testimony to his inquisitors reveals that upon hearing his fate Bruno said, “Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it1.” This level of commitment to open skepticism feels both relatable and inspiring to me.

Luckily, the penalties for challenging authority are much softer today. As a young scientist, my inner punk often emerges when opening a dialogue with others. While answering questions during a presentation, for instance, I find myself consciously striving to understand someone else’s point of view as best I can so that I can better gauge where my research fits into a larger context. I view the candid challenging of my work as a way to refine my own attitudes toward it, rather than as a reason to mentally accommodate the leftover cognitive dissonance from a tense examination. This level of scrutiny has the practical benefit of helping me decide which ideas warrant further investigation and which are probably dead ends.

I don’t believe that my approach to science is much different from most other young scientists. We all have an intrinsic curiosity about the natural world that motivates us to better understand it, and this is the source of our inner punk. I encourage all scientists to reject stagnant, ineffective ideas and discard toxic mindsets like arrogance or pride. These feelings hinder our progress and distract us from our ultimate goals as scientists: the discovery of new knowledge and the reduction of our own ignorance for the benefit of everyone.

1D.W. Singer, Giordano Bruno, His Life and Thought, New York, 1950, ch. 7