We were lucky enough to get the opportunity to talk to Danko Antolovic, author of Whither Science? here’s what happened…
We, at the Young Scientists Journal, were lucky enough to interview Danko Antolovic, a scientist and author. Senior Editor, Muhammad Hamza Waseem conducted the interview.
Danko is a scientist, technologist and author who lives in Bloomington, Indiana. His latest work titled Whither Science? is a series of three essays exploring some of the most fundamental questions faced by science in the 21st Century.
In this interview, Danko takes a look at the history, strengths and weaknesses of the Scientific Method and its future potential. Perhaps most importantly, he takes a look at the problems faced by science today.
Hamza: How long have you been writing?
Danko: Well, it depends on what kind of writing you mean. I have been doing technical writing for most of my life, but I have engaged in non-technical, essay style writing for a couple of years now.
Hamza: What is the idea behind your new book, Whither Science?
Danko: As the title implies, I try to address the role of science in contemporary times, to lay out what the actual practices of science are today, how people do what they do when they say they are involved in science.
I talk about what I see is the future direction of science and I maintain it’s the understanding of the human mind and the human instinct.
Hamza: Who are your favourite authors?
Danko: I don’t really have many preferred science writers because anybody who can explain a scientific field is usually okay. One of the fiction writers I could single out is Thomas Mann, a German writer who had a very interesting sense of humour and a very keen eye for the essence of situations.
There is an Italian writer, Italo Calvino, who wrote fiction stories you could almost qualify as science fiction stories. He was slightly surreal in his approach and I like him very much.
Hamza: What was the first science book that you read?
Danko: It was a chemistry textbook, not popular science. It was more of a technical book and it was a long time ago.
Hamza: Are there any scientists that you look up to, past or present?
Danko: A few names which influenced my thinking and writing would be Richard Feynman, Gottfried Leibniz and Rene Descartes. The latter two are early scientists, not in contemporary terms, but understood how to tackle problems with a scientific approach.
Hamza: Do you think popular science helps in educating the masses?
Danko: It’s difficult to say. I’m all in favour of expanding education and people understanding science better than they do currently, especially in the US where scientific education has a problem.
Popular science doesn’t talk much about the underlying issues, such as why we should trust scientific method. It propagates futuristic fantasy about ‘how everything’s going to be great’ years from now. I have very little sympathy and very little faith in these futuristic predictions because they mostly got things wrong.
Hamza: So, do you think popular science resembles fiction or storytelling?
Danko: If I may expound, science fiction is very different to popular science. People tend to confuse things a bit. Science fiction is really only vaguely related to science. It is storytelling based on some dramatics derived from some scientific discovery. Most scientists really do not read science fiction stories to decide what to do next.
On the other side, science fiction writers do not really write about science. They write about something else. They either write an adventure story or perhaps a social commentary or intellectual essay or something like that and they couch it in the form of a scientific discovery.
These two things are not one and the same. Proper scientific education should be discussing the scientific method and about how you become a good scientist. Good science fiction writing is something entirely different.
Hamza: How would you define a scientist?
Danko: I’d better fall back onto the idea of the scientific method, and that’s ultimately what qualifies a scientist as a scientist. I will bring up another point which I also talk about in my essays, which is that science is not only observation and classification. Science must contain an element of imagination and speculation, and I like to quote Richard Feynman,
“The game I play is a very interesting one. It’s imagination, in a straightjacket.”
It was on a TV show where Feynman was talking to some students and he was trying to explain to them what it means to do scientific work. He said it was “imagination in a straightjacket”. You have to have imagination first, to ask “what should I look at?”, “why is something the way it is?”, “why should I get a telescope and look at the stars?”, and “what is there to see?” That’s imaginative, the speculative part of science. Any good scientist has to have that, has to be curious about things, and ask “what is there to see, is there something worth seeing?”, and once you get to actually seeing things, observing things and thinking about them, you have to fall back into the straightjacket. You have to be rigorous about it. You have to be scientific in the sense that only what you can demonstrate as true is really true, and the rest is simply fiction.
Hamza: Do you think engineering is science in its essence? How are engineering and science related?
Danko: Engineering is not science. It is obviously based on the knowledge of the world that science provides, and very often people can be both scientists and engineers. I myself have scientific education and have done engineering in my life. I have great respect for engineering but it is essentially a different field.
It goes with established knowledge and perfects things, makes sure things work robustly and safely within regulations and so forth. Science, in the proper sense, is the acquisition of new and basic knowledge. It’s a different thing. Obviously scientists depend on engineers to build their devices and to help them conduct experiments. Some of these experiments are great; for example, particle accelerators and Mars probes are great feats of engineering. I talk about them a little bit in one of my essays as well. But then, in science, there are intricate machines put together by very talented people but they in themselves are not scientific advancements. Science is asking questions about the unknown things about the natural world.
Hamza: Do you think that eventually we will have a Grand Unified Theory, a theory of everything?
Danko: We have something close to it already. The only thing still missing is how to incorporate gravity into the quantum mechanical description of the world, because gravity is difficult to quantise.
All kinds of speculation are going on. I don’t know how soon or whether it will ever happen. If, by a theory of everything, you mean the theory of the four fundamental forces that we know about, and some sort of explanation of why particles are as they are; why they have mass and why they have charge, these will eventually be sorted out.
Now, can you have a theory of making theories? Creating a theory is also a part of everything, isn’t it? So by ‘everything’, you have to limit yourself to something. I do believe that eventually there will be a relatively closed physical picture of the four forces and the particles, but then again it’s always possible that what we know today as the standard model of theoretical physics is incomplete.
There may or may not be a fifth force. It’s entirely possible, you know. Every physical picture that we build is provisional in the end. At one point, people thought that classical mechanics according to Newton was all understood, right? Until somebody discovered that you couldn’t explain black-body radiation with it, nor an atomic model. And so the whole thing fell to pieces, and here you have quantum mechanics. So it’s very possible, at some point, some observation will not fit into anything that we know and we have to expand our picture and possibly go through another cycle of scientific discovery.
Hamza: What advice would you give to young scientists and researchers?
Danko: A couple of things, and I’m falling back on these essays that we were talking about earlier. When you are at an age when you are deciding what profession to choose, it is easy to be idealistic. One should be idealistic; one should want to do something for the beauty of it. But I would also say to the young scientist, future scientist: what you will eventually become or what you will have to do will not be only beautiful and exciting.
Science, as it is practiced, is a very ambivalent operation and it has some structural problems that perhaps the young scientist could address at some point. I won’t go into much of it now, but my advice would be to go into your chosen profession with a healthy dose of scepticism and an open mind about how science is being done and whether you will like that. Will you like working in a university department, where you will have to be very careful about what you say to your superiors? Will you like having to run around looking for funds to support your research? Will you like having to be somewhat two-faced about what you say to whom, which is very common for scientists?
So these are the things that you really have to think about when you pursue a profession as a scientist. At the same time, I think you must also know that our discipline doesn’t come out of a comfortable career; it comes out of an effort to shake off the ossified ideology of the Church of Rome. This is not to be forgotten. People have paid with their lives for the privileges that we have, of saying “show me the evidence”. If I say something to you, you always have the right to tell me “show me the evidence; I’m not taking what you are saying on our authority, so show me that it’s so”. And this has not always been the case; in the 16th and 17th century, it was dangerous. If you were questioning the dictum of the church, you could be killed in a very unpleasant way because you questioned the authority on which the dogma was based. So there is a very significant jump in the way that we approach reality and our questions about reality, and if you want to be a scientist you should never forget that. Our roots are not in a comfortable career. Our roots are in a difficult, strenuous, sometimes personally risky revolution against the uncertain but dictated truths. That would be my advice to young scientists.
Keep an open and sceptical mind about everything, including your own career.
Follow Danko on Twitter: @DankoAntolovic
Download “Whither Science?”: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/521589/