Thinking Like A Scientist

Chad Orzel of the Uncertain Principles blog announced late last year that he is working on a book about thinking like a scientist.1 In the announcement post he explained:

The core argument … is that the process of science– looking at the world, thinking of possible explanations for how it works, testing those models by experiment, and telling everyone the results– is an essential human activity, something every human is capable of. And, in fact, every human does make use of this process, in a wide range of everyday activities. Millions of people who don’t think of themselves as scientists are, in fact, thinking like scientists every day, in pursuit of hobbies and other activities they enjoy.

More recently he gave the 6-minute version of the book as a TEDx talk, and what stood out most to me about the talk is how similar my own metaphors for scientific discovery are to his. He compares the scientific method to crossword puzzles:

We were led to the dual nature of the universe through the same process you follow to solve a crossword puzzle.… [Y]ou piece [the solutions] together a letter at a time from the simpler clues that cross them. If all of those other crossing words fit together in a satisfying way, you can be confident that you’ve also [got the right answer.]

I like to compare science to sudoku.

Last March, while our building was closed for some rennovations, I spent an afternoon with a fourth grade class as a "visiting scientist," telling them what it's like to be a scientist, explaining parts of my research to them, answering questions, and asking them about their own scientific interests. We had a fairly large block of time together, so after the presentation of lab pictures and talk of cells, lasers and molecules, we did an activity to practice thinking like scientists: I taught them how to play sudoku.

Sudoku board

If you aren't familiar with sudoku, it's a logic game in which you fill in a 9×9 board with the numbers 1–9. Each number can be used only once per row, once per column, and once per 3×3 section. Boards start with a handful of boxes filled in, and you reason through the rest. Puzzles vary in difficulty by starting with more or fewer boxes filled.

We talked about the important steps in the scientific process: observing, asking questions, testing hypotheses, and sharing results; and I put a sudoku board up on the overhead as they passed around copies. We did the first few boxes together, using strips of colored transparency to highlight rows and columns where numbers could or could not go. Then they started to make their own guesses for which numbers went where.

"What is your hypothesis?" I would ask a student. "And what is your evidence?"At first, the second question made them hesitate; was their answer wrong? Soon, though, they got the hang of it. Instead of "The five goes here," they'd say "the five should go in this box because there aren't any fives in that row." So then we stepped it up another notch: "Are there other hypotheses? Could the five go somewhere else?" Occasionally, they'd pick a placement that was uncertain, and we'd put a temporary marking in, waiting for more evidence before calling it a firm conclusion.

I didn't know how long two dozen nine-year olds would stay interested in a sudoku board, but they ate it right up. Observations, hypotheses, evidence and conclusions. They knew the terms, they knew how they worked, and they had a ball puzzling out the answers. They understood that thinking like a scientist didn't mean wearing a lab coat or goggles. It didn't require genius. It didn't require decades of study. It was a lot like solving puzzles, and it could be fun.

I think it's just like Chad Orzel said when he announced his new book: "Millions of people who don’t think of themselves as scientists are, in fact, thinking like scientists every day, in pursuit of hobbies and other activities they enjoy." Whether they're doing crosswords, solving sudoku puzzles, or even, say, fixing up a car, they're asking questions and making observations in order to solve problems with testable solutions.

They're thinking like scientists, and they don't even know it.

1: I am so excited about this book. I will probably buy copies for several non-scientists in my life when it comes out.