This narrative describes our first task.
Walking into a first day of a science class, one of the proclamations that we’re conditioned to hear is about the power of the “scientific method.” There are plenty of first chapters of textbooks that devote themselves to describing a bit about what science is for, how it’s both an extension of things we naturally do, and a sharp contrast to other ways of knowing. And then there’s that scientific method. Each text is a little different on this point, but the essence is that we root out truth by testing our explanations against what we actually observe.
But I think we need to start somewhere else, back just a bit. I’m not sure that we really always agree on what it means to “observe.” And, it’s probably good to actually put this into practice. Observation is like any other skill.
For me, a sensible introduction to physical science is to begin with soap bubbles. This could be with a sink full of water and some dish detergent, or it could be some canister of stuff that you have left over from a summer birthday party. There are a few recipes that I like, but the basics of any of them include about 12 parts water and one part simple dish detergent. Put a wand, a straw, or even the end of a pipe or funnel into the solution so that a film stretches across one end, and then blow through the other.
What do you observe?
Get out your science journal. This could be a simple composition notebook, lined or unlined in any fashion you like. For me, the important part is that it’s a notebook that accompanies you and records ideas, observations, questions, and pursuits that may or may not lead to anything else. It’s not necessary that it’s pristine or even particularly well organized. You can display your edited genius in some other way, but this should be something that’s flooded with mistakes, ramblings, and snippets of ideas. It’s your blueprint of potential.
Find a page to start and document bubble observations. Having a partner in this pursuit is useful, not only because one person could be blowing the bubbles and the other could observe something closely, but because one person’s observation can lead to another. That said, there’s something about just sitting with an observation all to yourself. It’s up to you. (Often I’d have you start this in class, with a partner; and then you’d head home armed with your notebook and your bubbles to do more observations yourself.)
One of my favorite photos is this one of a girl playing with a giant soap bubble.
It’s a good example of the many things that we could find in a soap bubble if we look closely. First, there’s the bubble itself, stuck to her hands. There are colors that are rainbow-ish, but not really the same colors that you see in a rainbow. Then, looking a little more closely, there’s a reflection of the sun at the top of the bubble, as well as another at the bottom of the bubble. There’s a big drop of bubble goo starting to form at the bottom, too. And there are hands — not just those holding the bubble, but reflected images of those hands at different places. Look some more and you’ll see that the photographer is in this image as well, reflected back from the front surface, his camera and hand towards the center, his legs and feet at the bottom. Each time I look at this image, I see something new.
Your first observations might be about how the bubbles form, how they fall or drift, what they do when they hit the ground, how they interact with one another, and on and on.
Keep observing. There’s no rush, and there’s plenty to see.
The following essay, written by Samuel Scudder, was about his first experience in graduate school. He showed up to essentially begin his apprenticeship as a research scientist, ready to study insects. His professor greets Scudder and tasks the student with observing, of all things, a dead fish.
The Student, the Fish, and Agassiz,” by Samuel Scudder (1879).
Give this a read and consider what’s happening to Scudder and how he’s learning to observe. Go back to your own bubbles, again, and observe as Scudder might recommend to an apprentice scientist.
Go ahead, I’ll wait.
What kinds of things do you observe with the bubbles now that you didn’t see before?
In general, we see more details that might seem more elaborate; we might take a pencil (like Scudder did) to start to observe through writing and drawing; and it might occur to you for the first time to note that the bubbles are round, just like fishes are symmetrical.
It should be no surprise that Scudder wasn’t the first nor the last person to observe a fish. Here’s another account:
“The Fish”, by Billy Collins (as published in the New York Times, along with some recipes)
Billy Collins is a notable poet, holding the position of U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 – 2003. His observation of a fish is quite different — and not just because he’s at a restaurant in Pittsburg, although that’s clearly part of it.
Consider the perspective of a poet. Go back to your bubbles and observe again, still using that notebook, but now looking through the lens of a poet or perhaps even another artist. You don’t need to write your own poems (though no one is stopping you). Just observe from this new perspective.
Now, what do you see?
The point of this exercise is two-fold:
First, observation is something that we take for granted as a practice and a skill. It’s at the very heart of what science does, where it starts. We don’t come up with questions or investigations or models or anything else until we’ve experienced phenomena in some way. Sometimes, the experience is in the mind’s eye, constructed from other things that we know, like with something as exotic as a black hole. Most of the time, though, I suspect that we start with an observation that’s very simple, seen but unobserved until we take the time to really delve into it.
Second, “observation” isn’t an action without context. The observations are different and differently directed if we look at something as a scientist rather than as a poet. As a scientist, we look for patterns that lead to an understanding of how things are put together, why they might move the way they do, how they function. As poets, we probably associate other meanings with what we see. Empathy and metaphors, statements about the human condition and how we can relate these to one another — these are all outside of scientific reach, but they’re still valuable in their own way and with their own purpose. The work of the scientist might impact the work of the poet (or the painter or the philosopher or the writer or anyone else), but it’s important to be clear about which of these lenses we’re wearing. Throughout this course, we’ll refine the lens we use as scientists, but this doesn’t mean the other lenses are less valuable. They just have different goals.