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Excerpt: "IGNORANCE: How It Drives Science" by Stuart Firestein

Excerpt: "IGNORANCE: How It Drives Science" by Stuart Firestein

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Published by wamu885
Reprinted from IGNORANCE: How It Drives Science by Stuart Firestein with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © 2012 by Stuart Firestein.
Reprinted from IGNORANCE: How It Drives Science by Stuart Firestein with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © 2012 by Stuart Firestein.

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Published by: wamu885 on May 21, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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“It is very difcult to fnd a black cat in a dark room,” warns an old proverb.“Especially when there is no cat.”
his strikes me as a particularly apt description o howscience proceeds on a day-to-day basis. It is certainlymore accurate than the more common metaphor o scientistspatiently piecing together a giant puzzle. With a puzzle yousee the manuacturer has guaranteed there is a solution.I know that this view o the scientifc process—eelingaround in dark rooms, bumping into unidentifable things,looking or barely perceptible phantoms—is contrary tothat held by many people, especially by nonscientists. Whenmost people think o science, I suspect they imagine thenearly 500-year-long systematic pursuit o knowledge that,over 14 or so generations, has uncovered more inormationabout the universe and everything in it than all that was
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known in the frst 5,000 years o recorded human history.They imagine a brotherhood tied together by its goldenrule,
, an immutable set o precepts ordevising experiments that churn out the cold, hard acts.And these solid acts orm the edifce o science, an unbro-ken record o advances and insights embodied in our mod-ern views and unprecedented standard o living. Science,with a capital
.That’s all very nice, but I’m araid it’s mostly a talewoven by newspaper reports, television documentaries,and high school lesson plans. Let me tell you my somewhatdierent perspective. It’s not acts and rules. It’s black catsin dark rooms. As the Princeton mathematician AndrewWiles describes it: It’s groping and probing and poking, andsome bumbling and bungling, and then a switch is discov-ered, oten by accident, and the light is lit, and everyonesays, “Oh, wow, so that’s how it looks,” and then it’s o intothe next dark room, looking or the next mysterious blackeline. I this all sounds depressing, perhaps some bleakBeckett-like scenario o existential endlessness, it’s not. Inact, it’s somehow exhilarating.This contradiction between how science is pursued ver-sus how it is perceived frst became apparent to me in mydual role as head o a laboratory and Proessor o Neurosci-ence at Columbia University. In the lab, pursuing questionsin neuroscience with the graduate students and postdoctoral
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ellows, thinking up and doing experiments to test our ideasabout how brains work, was exciting and challenging and,well, exhilarating. At the same time I spent a lot o timewriting and organizing lectures about the brain or anundergraduate course that I was teaching. This was quitedifcult given the amount o inormation available, and italso was an interesting challenge. But I have to admit it wasnot exhilarating. What was the dierence?The course I was, and am, teaching has the orbidding-sounding title “Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience.” Thestudents who take this course are very bright young peoplein their third or ourth year o University and are mostlydeclared biology majors. That is, these students are all goingon to careers in medicine or biological research. The courseconsists o 25 hour-and-a-hal lectures and uses a textbookwith the loty title
 Principles o Neural Science
, edited by theeminent neuroscientists Eric Kandel and Tom Jessell (withthe late Jimmy Schwartz). The textbook is 1,414 pages longand weighs in at a hety 7.7 pounds, a little more in act thantwice the weight o a human brain. Now, textbook writersare in the business o providing more inormation or thebuck than their competitors, so the books contain quite a loto detail. Similarly, as a lecturer, you wish to sound authori-tative, and you want your lectures to be “inormative,” soyou tend to fll them with many acts hung loosely on a ewbig concepts. The result, however, was that by the end o 
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