Varieties of Scientific Experience Varieties of Scientific Experience
Simon DeDeo
Talk given at the Awards for Scientific Excellence, co-sponsored by the Santa Fe Alliance for Science and the Santa Fe Institute, 11 May 2011
[back to popular articles / back to main page]

Congratulations to Diane Catron, and to the students we're honoring today.

I've always thought physicists had it easy when it came to giving inspirational talks. Now I think it's the biologists. But perhaps the change of view happened when I started to work in biology. Some biologists, just to complicate matters, will say that that's just because I'm a physicist.

You wouldn't be here if you weren't keen on joining this amorphous, civilization-spanning project that we call "doing science." And when you go on to University, you are going to have to pick some one part of it to try. You will check a box on a form, and you will start to learn mathematics, or biology, or chemistry, linguistics, computer science . . .

This is a wonderful thing — that we are organized enough to distinguish tools, and methods, and fields of knowledge. And it will be natural, over time, to identify with your particular field, and the kinds of people that are attracted to it — your brothers and sisters in arms. You will be asked to do unbelievably difficult things, and when you succeed, you will feel even closer to the people you did them with, and will value the perspectives that allowed you to do them even more.

If you study physics, for example, you will end up valuing a certain irreverent attitude towards the facts. Only some features of a system matter — everything else is equivalent, you can forget it. And what matters is often a very abstract property, like "moment of inertia" (or, worse: moment of inertia tensor.)

But when you actually start to try to use what you have learned — when, in other words, you take responsibility for the thousands of hours you and others have invested in structuring your brain — you will discover, and this can be quite a shock, that other fields have different cultures, different assumptions, different things they value. Being able to forget things is not a skill biologists cultivate.

In fact — and this will be something you discover sooner, rather than later — you will likely yourself fall between cultures. That you love, believe in, say, the abstraction of properties, but — on the other hand — you also enjoy explaining diversity, saying why there might be "so many things to ignore" in the first place. That's a style that in the past we've associated with biology.

You wouldn't be alone — Dudley Herschbach, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, said once that what he did felt like linguistics.

Of course we fall between cultures at the Institute all the time. Even more than most scientists, we're professional transgressives. Now, for example, I work on animal behavior, on the ways in which animals interact with each other and, in particular, in the way conflict is managed and sometimes even promoted.

That means, for our collaboration, looking at an actual group of animals. And of course, I didn't know, coming in, the first thing about looking at animals — in this case, a kind of monkey called the pigtailed macaque. And no matter how long we work together, I will not know these things the same way a biologist does.

Thinking "ethologically" is very different from thinking mathematically, or economically, or physically. It's often different, even, from thinking in terms of evolution. And yet there's no way we can go back in time and switch sides. So instead, we have to talk, and listen — not in the way a student and a teacher interact, but something quite a bit more fluid: sometimes one of us leads, sometimes another, sometimes one of us thinks we're leading, but it's the beautiful illusion of ignorance.

Sometimes there's a question that nobody at the table has seen before, and we all sit there for a little bit, and look at it, like an alien artifact.

And even there, people behave differently. Some people love the shiny new question; others might worry it's a distraction. Some come from cultures with an embarrassment of riches, and are indifferent to yet another novelty; others from desolate lands, picked nearly clean, hiding one, last diamond.

In our work on these animals, I have been thinking, recently, about the composition of functions, which is essentially the question of what happens when you wire things together — when you wire them together, in fact, in all possible ways. And, depending on what you wire together, depending on what is in the bag, you are able to solve various kinds of larger problems — the technical term is a "clone."

In any case, some of the things you can do with your bag, some of these clones, in the infinite limit, overlap — so that anything you can do with this bag, you can do with that bag, even if what is in the two bags is completely different. In other cases, different bags give you different powers, but if you take one — just one! — thing from some one else's bag, you can do everything.

Showing this, by the way, is a beautiful thing to behold: you are setting up all of these structures, they're called "lattices" but look on paper like a giant ball of yarn, and someone shows you that if you pull on this part here and that part there, the whole ball unravels.

So, if I were to express this thought from the formal, mathematical point of view, I might say that the clone of any single human mind is a proper subset of the functions expressed by the Universe as a whole.

Now I know my collaborators would put that differently; in fact, they're both off surfing in Hawaii right now, but when they get back, I'll bring it up. And if we know how to listen to each other — if we have the ability to, as it were, use our culture to go beyond our culture, then we might learn something new.