A taxonomy of great science

Acclaimed author, science writer and physicist Alan Lightman reflected on some of the great science and scientists of the 20th century during this year's Enrichment in the Spring program.

Acclaimed author and physicist Alan Lightman recently gave a keynote address on the great scientific discoveries of the 20th century and the scientists responsible for these discoveries as part of this year’s Enrichment in the Spring Program.

In an enlightening talk, the author of the international best-seller "Einstein's Dreams" and "The Diagnosis" and others and professor of the practice of the humanities at MIT skimmed through an analysis of 25 of the most important scientific discoveries and discoverers of our time—discoveries that have radically changed our notions of the world and our place in it.

His presentation entitled “The Discoveries: Great Breakthroughs in 20th-Century Science” covered everything from the theory of relativity to mapping the structure of DNA and was based on his 2005 book “The Discoveries.”

The great scientific discoveries of our time

Lightman, whose literary essays and articles have appeared in The Atlantic, Granta, Harper’s, The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, discussed some of the great scientists and their discoveries from 1021 A.D. up through 1972. Highlights from Lightman's talk included the works of the great Muslim scholar Ibn Al-haytham for his understanding of vision, optics and light (1021 AD); Max Planck for the discovery of the quantum (1900); Ernest Starling and William Bayliss for their research on hormones (1902); Albert Einstein for elucidating the particle nature of light (1905); Ernest Rutherford for the nucleus of the atom (1911); Max von Laue for the size of the cosmos (1912); Neils Bohr for the quantum atom (1913); Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner for nuclear fission (1939); Francis Crick and James Watson for the structure of DNA (1953); and Paul Berg’s research on recombinant DNA in 1972.

He examined one case study in detail: the discovery of the cosmic distance scale by the American astronomer and early pioneer Henrietta Leavitt in 1912. Leavitt's work culminated in the discovery of the relation between the luminosity and the period of cepheid variable stars—a discovery which became one of the cornerstones of modern astronomical science.

“When you look up at the sky you only see a two dimensional picture. You see a cluster of stars—and you don't know if it's a separate galaxy—because you don't know the size of our galaxy. The distance to other galaxies was determined through Leavitt's theory,” Lightman said. “Unfortunately and unbelievably, Leavitt died prematurely of cancer in 1921 and didn't even receive a professorship or a big award during her lifetime.”

Lightman pointed out that although there have been a number of important scientific discoveries and contributions from women throughout history, women simply haven’t had the same opportunities as their male peers. He insisted that this is a trend that needs to change in the future, and, to this end, he founded the Harpswell Foundation, the mission of which is to empower a new generation of women leaders in Southeast Asia.

“Women should be encouraged in science. Worldwide, women are not encouraged to go into science half as much as men are—and that's something that we are going to have to work on,” he said.

A 'taxonomy' of scientific discovery

Lightman, who has a Ph.D. in physics from the California Institute of Technology, discussed what he described as a "taxonomy" of scientific discovery and how it applied to the scientists in question.

“In most discoveries there's a kind of synthesis involved. Discoveries can follow periods of being stuck—sometimes, scientists can find what they are looking for by not looking at all,” Lightman said.

With a wealth of experience in scientific research and reportage, Lightman also dispensed some advice for current students and researchers and for the scientists of the future who might have run into a brick wall in their research and findings.

“Don’t despair when you are stuck. In fact. I encourage you [students and researchers] to get stuck. It gives you time to think: and you could be on the edge of a great discovery—great discoveries can follow periods of being stuck,” Lightman said.

He also implored those same budding science writers, students and researchers not to be afraid to critique the science behind their profession and chosen field.

“Don't think of science with rose-colored glasses. Don’t be afraid of critiquing the science. A lot of the worldespecially todayis scientific and highly technical. We must think critically about the science behind the discovery. Sometimes these discoveries might not have been ethical or used improper principles. In the field of science, we don’t want to train cheerleaders. We want to train people who can put science into a context and place,” he said.


The prepared mind

In keeping with the theme of this year’s Enrichment in the Spring program, Lightman, whose research on general relativity, radiation processes and stellar dynamics, along with his literary credentials, can be classified as a true pioneer of science, concluded his address by highlighting how his involvement with science continues to inform his day-to-day activities.

“Science informs my writing. The subject matter, the culture, the ethosthat’s what I draw from. Unlike artists, scientists work on problems that ultimately have a solution. It may take one to 10 years plus, but the solution exists. If the scientist is committed to the discovery, he or she will eventually make the breakthrough,” he emphasized.

“I don't think there's been enough time for analysis to say what has been the best discovery of the 20th century. You need a certain amount of time to know the importance of a discovery. In my opinion, not one great scientific discovery has been made by an amateur. All the great discoveries were by scientists with 'prepared minds'they had studied their subjects, they had mastered their craft and they were highly skilled individuals—they were the experts,” he concluded.

-By David Murphy, KAUST News.