By: Hayden Saunders
I have said this to a number of people, and often they are reluctant to believe me: Growing up in school, science is very cut and dry. There is right and wrong, with hardly any gray area. However, when you learn science, you are simply memorizing condensed versions of what has already been discovered. Real science is the ability to make these discoveries.
Science always starts with a question. More often than not, we can already see the finish line, which is where we reach the answer to that question. However, as exists two points in space, there are numerous ways to get from the starting point to the finish line. Anybody who has ever attempted a scientific project knows that it never ends up being a straight line. You will find out that something does not work or that something you thought you knew was wrong. At those times, you have to step back and go in another direction. Sometimes, in fortuitous instances, this leads to answers to other questions, but more often than not it makes your path to the finish seem even more convoluted.
Oftentimes, I feel as if I am in a maze in which all of the walls are invisible. I can see all the way to the finish line, so I initially set off for the shortest distance between two points: the straight line. As is always the case, this leads me right to a wall. I do not know how far this wall extends. If I believe that I am close to an opening, I can take a few steps over and walk forward again, hoping to get past the initial wall. However, this usually results in running right back into the same wall. I can continue to probe for openings in this wall for weeks if not months, making absolutely no progress.
True scientific insight is the ability to take ten steps back from that wall, turn all the way to one side and chart a new path. Though it may seem like you are not gaining any ground to the finish line, you are more than likely making more progress than continuing to probe areas of the wall that will yield nothing. This is where creativity comes in, and this is why I tell people that science is an art. Any artist who begins a sculpture surely has a clear vision of what their finished project will be, but the intermediate steps are what involve the creativity to reach the finished product.
When you finally make it to the finish line, you can look back and see all of the other paths that could have led you there. Each path is different. Some may have led off in another direction for miles before working back to the finish line. Some paths may involve so many intricate twists and turns it will look like it was drawn by M.C. Escher. You may also see a path that is as near as possible to a straight line. Each one of these paths has their own advantages and disadvantages. The path that led off for miles could have resulted in a hundred more questions and possibly even answers to other questions. The path that twisted and turned could lead to new insight about the tools scientists use to navigate their mazes. The straight path, however, would almost undoubtedly yield much other information than the answer to your initial question. But true creativity in science is the ability to step back and make turns. These turns and the extra ground they make you cover add more to the scientific discovery than taking the shortest path possible.
In this way, I would argue that there is no such thing as perfect science. However, great science lies in the ability to be flexible, the willingness to give up and go down a different path, and the faith to know that you will eventually find yourself at the finish line with more gained than you could have ever expected when you took off on your journey.