science

“The useless days will add up to something”

“The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.”
“Dear Sugar, The Rumpus Advice Column #64: Tiny Beautiful Things”

Science is about the eternal pursuit for the truth. For centuries, we have been attempting to explain what we witness and experience in the natural world. We observe and experiment to advance our collective knowledge and figure out the directions in which we should devote our future efforts. But we do so knowing that we only ever approximate the truth. Underlying the best efforts of science: the belief that what we know is subject to change with sufficiently convincing evidence.

Research demands that we create new knowledge. We are asked to stand at the edge of the known world, look behind in appreciation of all that has gone before, then leap forth into the unknown in order to uncover new ground beneath our feet.

This is faith: to have the courage to go beyond what is known.

I’ve spent most of this afternoon with my sketchbook, trying to piece together my ideas about the last paper in my thesis. It’s the bigger picture thinking that I so enjoy, framed by questions like:

  • What is the basic concept that underpins my research question?
  • What does the current evidence have to say about how “true” that concept may be?
  • Where is my work located in this conversation, and what do these findings contribute?
  • Whose work does it agree with? And disagree with?
  • Does it tell us anything new?
  • Does it give any hints about where to go from here?

scribbles 
I answer these questions with hasty scribbles, crude flow charts, bold statements, retractions, revisions. And it comes to me that I can take a step back – zoom the lens out – and ask myself bigger questions again.  How does this concept fit within what we know about optimal athlete performance?  About the conditions necessary for humans to succeed in the pursuit of any goal?

And in a rush so electrifying that I think I can feel impulses crossing synapses, I glimpse how “the useless days” add up. I connect the dots between my research and:

  • A conference keynote that underlined the role of failure for developing self-belief.1
  • A popular TED talk that highlighted how grit is essential to success.2
  • A fortuitous catch up over coffee to chat about harmonious and obsessive passion in entrepreneurs and other high performers.3
  • A tweet about resilience as a defining characteristic of Olympic champions.4

Now I have a new perspective with which to understand how my work contributes a slice of insight not only to my discipline, but well beyond it too. I’ll write reams with this new-found fervour, knowing that only a fraction of it is likely to end up in my thesis. But today’s lesson is that faith is central to the scientific process. The conversations in the office kitchenette, the hours lost to TED videos and reading blog post after blog post, the diversions borne of wide curiosity, the projects we take on “just because”…it all adds up. We just have to have faith that the non-strategic things we do are important and meaningful too.

Days like these remind me why I love science, why I actively practice curiosity, and why I have so enjoyed the PhD experience 🙂


Footnotes

  1. David Martin‘s keynote address at ECSS 2012, “Winning the Tour De France: A sport science perspective” (video).
  2. Angela Lee Duckworth @ TED in 2013, “The key to success? Grit” (video).
  3. Rosemary Fisher’s PhD thesis (2011), “Passion, resilience, obsession and sustained entrepreneurial action: the path to entrepreneurial success”.
  4. Tweet from Mustafa Sarkar (@MusSarkar) and article on “Developing resilience – Lessons learned from Olympic champions”.
  5. Featured image: Ansel Adams – Canyon edge, low horizon, clouded sky, “Grand Canyon National Park,” Arizona. FlickrThe U.S. National Archives.

“Science is an inherent contradiction”

Drawing content together at the intersections of art, science, culture, imagination, and literature, Brain Pickings has to be one of my favourite websites right now.  Consistently excellent posts that leave me feeling inspired and better-read than before.  Here’s a gem that sums up why I love science, but also why the idea of doing strictly “hard science” is not enough.

Science is an inherent contradiction — systematic wonder — applied to the natural world. In its mundane form, the methodical instinct prevails and the result, an orderly procession of papers, advances the perimeter of knowledge, step by laborious step. Great scientific minds partake of that daily discipline and can also suspend it, yielding to the sheer love of allowing the mental engine to spin free. And then Einstein imagines himself riding a light beam, Kekule formulates the structure of benzene in a dream, and Fleming’s eye travels past the annoying mold on his glassware to the clear ring surrounding it — a lucid halo in a dish otherwise opaque with bacteria — and penicillin is born. Who knows how many scientific revolutions have been missed because their potential inaugurators disregarded the whimsical, the incidental, the inconvenient inside the laboratory?”

– From: “Systematic Wonder: A Definition of Science That Accounts for Whimsy”

Science respects ruthless critical analysis in pursuit of the true truth.  But as scientists, we have to respect that centuries of scientific inquiry and data still represent dramatically incomplete representations of the total possible understanding we could have about a problem and how best to solve it.  That’s not to say that the pursuit of scientific truth is not worthwhile, but that we as scientists have to allow room for serendipity, intuition, and instinct to glue together our puzzle pieces in ways that our logical minds would never consider.

Mind Maps: Student Thoughts on Being an Applied Sport Scientist

In the first week of teaching Applied Sport Science, we ask the students to think on what it means to be an Applied Sport Scientist.  Specifically, “What are the key skills/characteristics/qualities/competencies required to work in the field of applied sport science?”

Here are the mind maps created from the responses of my students in all three of my classes this trimester:

I always enjoy this process.  The insights from students are often surprising, whether in their depth or in their variety.  I thought that the emphasis on specific competencies, like being able to conduct a maximal oxygen uptake test, was interesting in that it is probably reflective of the way sport science students are taught.  In other words, “If you know how to run these tests, then that makes you a sport scientist.”  Yet in the field, it is often the application of “soft skills” that is of most use: communication and delivery of information, maintaining beneficial relationships, conflict resolution, adaptability, eagerness to learn, and so on.  To that end, I was glad that each group highlighted the importance of experience.  As sport and exercise science encompasses so many disciplines, a Bachelor’s degree in E&SS is just a starting point for further explorations, both theoretical and practical in good measure.