I Did Normal Science

Finally I am reading one of the most influential books on science: Thomas Kuhn – The Structure of Scientific Resolutions. I should have done so earlier, actually the book should be part of any science major’s undergraduate curriculum.

Naive as I was, I had expected to work on solving earth-shattering problems in physics, or at least to contribute to the steadily and ever increasing pool of knowledge in natural science that denote progress in science and technology.

I worked in Applied Physics, specialized in laser physics and high-temperature superconductivity. Though labelled an “experimentalist” I tried to squeeze as much theory as possible into my PhD research. Probably very similar to my motivation for starting this blog. I considered physics the all-encompassing most general discipline in natural sciences and I wanted to become sort of renaissance person.

According to scientific community metrics  I was successful, but I did not feel quite so. At the end of my PhD I felt that I was writing papers that might be interesting to a handful of experts. My research would never bring me closer to sort of main stream of science – using the term “main stream” literally: I envisaged core activities in physics, concerned with solving the problems of the universe. These activities would go on and on – gradually, not including the paradigm shifts proposed by Kuhn. Due to whatever reason I was stuck in an unimportant billabong hardly connected to the main stream.

My personal website and my other sites quoted therein (…referring to it, I subvert my blogging philosophy described here) have always reflected these feelings, even the choice of colors is symptomatic. [Voice from the future – 2019: All my sites and blogs are going to be merged / united]

Finally I believe I  have found:

  • a solution to my “physics career problem” (will be / has been detailed elsewhere)
  • an explanation!

The explanation is plain simple: I was just doing what Kuhn calls Normal Science, science as usual guided by the accepted paradigm. I was working on high temperature superconductors in the early 1990s, only a few years after their discovery. I am still ignorant about the status of the HTC. Does their discovery qualify as a paradigm shift? They may be anomalies that trigger revolutions in sub-disciplines (such as condensed matter physics) according to Kuhn. Just considering the way I did research back and based on my – probably biased – judgement of the HTC community I would say that this was not an all a paradigm shift.

Is this explanation helpful? To me it is – as is the discovery of any rules that govern the dynamics of a “system” I am or have been part of – such as academia in general or the world of global corporations. As a consequence I try to loosen my ties with all these communities to the maximum extent possible. I try to become the ant that left the anthill, the borg guy breaking from the collective, and I am well aware of the risk of just being trapped in a new collective (that I am not aware of).

One of my favorite quotes from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Italics Kuhn’s), on science as puzzle-solving.

A man may be attracted to science for all sorts of reason. Among them are the desire to be useful, the excitement of exploring new territory, the hope of finding order, and the drive to test established knowledge.

The scientific enterprise as a whole does from time to time prove useful, open up new territory, display order, and test long-accepted belief. Nevertheless, the individual engaged on a normal research problem is almost never doing any of these things. Once engaged, his motivation is of a rather different sort. What then challenges him is the conviction that, if only he is skilful enough, he will succeed in solving a puzzle that no one before has solved or solved or solved so well.

With hindsight, I see myself as such a “mere” puzzle-solver. However, the enigma I needed to investigate was rather mundane – however, an “interesting” puzzle. “Nice physics” as we used to say.

One Comment Add yours

  1. elkement says:

    Based on an e-mail response to this blog post, I want to add a comment myself: This post was not intended to constitute a negative statement about the research I was involved in, and I hope it has not come across as wallowing in self-pity.
    Yes, I did some soul-searching about the reasons why my research back then was not “more revolutionary”. Probably I should have selected another field or another university? Actually Kuhn’s description of Normal Science came as a relief to me. There is a chance that I had started studying physics at a time (and in a geographical area) that did not offer so many chances for “revolutionary” research. And above all, in a pre-paradigm phase you cannot know which research will turn out to be eventually paradigm-shattering. From a statistical perspective, chances are always high that a freshly minted physics graduate will end up in Normal Science.
    I had taken my study-related decisions based on factors such as: Will that type of research provide me with options to apply my skills to the “world of real jobs”? Does my choice allow me to combine theory and experment and to swap fields to the maximum extent possible? Can I avoid living the life of a travelling postdoc nomad and might I be able to start a business on my own? Considering all these arguments in addition to the question “Will I make a major contribution to science?” I am truly satisfied with the outcome.

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