Doing Science: Design, Analysis, and Communication of Scientific Research

By Ivan Valiela | Go to book overview

1
Obtaining Scientific Information

1.1 Introduction

We make scientific progress in unpredictable and multifaceted ways. The first impetus is the contribution by individuals of genius and talent. An observation, previous information, accumulated experience, or older theories could spark a new explanation or hypothesis. For Newton, it was the apocryphal falling apple. Galileo is said to have been inspired to develop the laws of mechanical motion after observing an incense-filled censer swinging in the Cathedral at Pisa.1 Distracted from the Mass being celebrated, Galileo used his pulse to time the oscillations and found that, regardless of the amplitude of the swing, the period was the same. He then experimentally confirmed the observation and developed equations that mirrored the laws governing the motion. Galileo's process included three steps. First, he asked the feasible question of how fast objects moved, rather than trying the then-unfeasible task of explaining why they moved. Second, Galileo made connections between the detailed, specific observations he made and general laws that could account for the way objects moved. Third, Galileo insisted on synthesizing the newly gained knowledge by devising a mathematical expression for the laws.

[G]enius, as previously the saint, has direct access to truth by an unexplained route, while the person of talent must use regular and repeatable methods to find his way step by step, rather than by the singular flash of insight.

Stuart Hampshire, paraphrasing Kant's concept of genius

Not all inspirational cues will be as memorable as falling apples or swinging censers, nor do we all have the genius to deduce the link between a falling apple, the rise and fall of tides, and the motion of planets. The mark of scientific inspiration can be thought to be the ability to see “a reflection of the universe in the glint on a drop of dew. ” Scientific genius is unlikely to be merely the result of training, but, whatever the level of one's scientific prowess, it is possible to learn to be a better, more critical and effective practitioner of science, to discriminate among more and less effective ways to do science, and to communicate one's results to others in more transparent fashion.

A second impetus to scientific progress is that people require solutions to a plethora of problems. These solutions more often than not can bene-

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1
Galileo did not do, or at least was not the first to have done, the better known experiment of dropping wooden and iron balls off the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which is in actuality the campanile to the Cathedral. A Dutchman, Simon Stevin, did a similar experiment elsewhere a few years before Galileo's work on the subject.

-3-

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Doing Science: Design, Analysis, and Communication of Scientific Research
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Preface v
  • Contents vii
  • Doing Science 1
  • 1 - Obtaining Scientific Information 3
  • Sources and Further Reading *
  • 2 - Elements of Scientific Data and Tests of Questions 29
  • Sources and Further Reading *
  • 3 - Statistical Analyses 49
  • Sources and Further Reading *
  • 4 - Principles of Research Design 79
  • Sources and Further Reading 97
  • 5 - Communication of Scientific Information: Writing 99
  • Sources and Further Reading *
  • 6 - Communicating Scientific Information: the Scientific Paper 127
  • Sources and Further Reading *
  • 7 - Other Means of Scientific Communication 147
  • Sources and Further Reading *
  • 8 - Presenting Data in Tables 171
  • Sources and Further Reading *
  • 9 - Presenting Data in Figures 183
  • Sources and Further Reading *
  • 10 - Case Studies of Graphical Data Presentation 219
  • 11 - Perceptions and Criticisms of Science 255
  • Sources and Further Reading *
  • Index 285
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