Fact and Speculation. The factual and relaxed scientist in the left-hand photo, secure in his knowledge of physics, wants to engage in rational discourse. The speculative, visionary wild man on the right, wielding his measuring cylinder, wants to do battle with conventional wisdom, knock down the barriers and assumptions that restrain us.
I think there are three requirements for success in research. OK, there must be a lot of others too, but stay with me here:
1. You have to know what’s known, right up to the boundary of human knowledge.
2. You need the imagination to look beyond into the unknown, to come up with fresh new ideas, even crazy ideas even.
3. You need the insight to see links, where you can bring the unknown into the known, to test it and prove or disprove it.
Some folks get stuck at the first one. They say, how can you know everything that’s known? Well, you have to understand the “map”, and you have to be selective.
Think of science as blob of knowledge. It’s shaped like an amoeba, or perhaps better, like a sea star. Not a simple five-pointed one, but one of those exotic Antarctic stars that seems to grow unlimited arms at will.
Well established fields where we know a lot are like the points of the star. The fields you can get a degree in are like the arms of the star. Physics, biology, chemistry, EE, ME. But then they added computer science, applied physics, materials science, biochemistry, molecular biology. These are additional star points, growing out from the center.
If you study an established field, there’s a lot to learn to get out to the growing boundary; if you work in an interdisciplinary area, “between the arms”, you have to synthesize knowledge from several different areas but when you do, you may become an expert rather quickly.
Of course, when you look closely at the boundary of knowledge you find that it’s fuzzy, not clear-cut at all: out at the edge are new theories, new experimental results, fresh ideas that haven’t been incorporated into the accepted framework of science. And this blurred boundary is the home of research.
So I would claim that if you’re a thoughtful scientist, you’ll try to stay in touch not only with your rational, fact-based side, but also your speculative and crazy side. Or at least, work with other researchers who complement your own qualities. That’s a good path to discovering new things.
When I write posts on this website, I try to interrogate both kinds of thinking: the rational, facts-only-ma’am scientist inside me, and his speculative, crazy twin.