Monday, 16 June 2014

Elementary, my dear Watson?

The difference between seeing and observing is a fundamentally important concept in Science. In my view, it was best described by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, through his characterisation of Sherlock Holmes in his first published short story: "A Scandal in Bohemia", who was trying to explain the difference to Watson:

“You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”
“How often?”
“Well, some hundreds of times.”
“Then how many are there?”
“How many? I don't know.”
“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”
As we finish the project work in the Innovation Labs this year, we are going to examine the skills that you have been acquiring before you leave for summer. We shall incorporate a series of "tests" into Tuesday (Y10) and Thursday (Y12) sessions. Some of these tests will assess your dexterity and attention to detail, using the equipment including pipettemen (Gilsons), centrifuges, spectrophotometers etc., but some will ask you to write down your observations. 
You know how often I ask you to write down everything you see, from the colour of a sample, the smell, the number of legs on the mealworm larvae etc. There is a reason. A good experimental scientists doesn't just follow protocols with care and attention to detail, s/he also observes. I like this quote from George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright, intellectual and co-founder of the London School of Economics.
"The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it."
Why do I like this? Observations are key to turning just another piece of information into understanding. Think of Rosalind Franklin's processing of X ray data and Crick and Watson's observational powers with similar data sets in hand. Observations can often require courage, especially if they deviate from the consensus view. Perhaps this is why GBS used the term cynicism (ie an inclination to believe that people are motivated purely by self-interest; scepticism). When you see something that others don't some people don't like it. Well I do! So focus on observing and not just looking!

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