Our readers, and especially those involved in interdisciplinary research, will enjoy the new book Into the Sciences by Frederick J. Ross. In it, Fred distills the essence of science and scientific practices using numerous examples from math, physics, biology, medicine and musicology. Here is Fred’s summary of the book -
To laymen ‘science’ and ‘research’ seem amorphous things, mysterious work performed by lab-coated acolytes that somehow yields knowledge of our world. This book breaks them down into a clear model of the activities involved, then uses that model to explain why science is separated into disciplines, how those disciplines are shaped by their diffferent subject matter, and finally how researchers choose what they do.
Bioinformaticians may remember Fred from his parting message to the community that went viral two years back. We visited his blog after reading the post at reddit and found it to be full of intelligent and thought-provoking articles on math, physics, systems biology and computing (see links here). The author appeared to have deep understanding of several scientific areas.
In his book, Fred uses that multidisciplinary expertise to write about the common theme among scientific practices in diverse fields. He explains how scientists (‘practitioners’) from all disciplines attempt to solve messy real life problems by converting them into ‘reasonable approximations’ of ‘idealized trials’. Also, each scientific field has a set of ‘primitive notions’ and existing theories, which get updated through repeated cycle of new observations and attempts to explain those observations based on prior understanding.
Outsiders may perceive science to be all mechanical, but, in reality, the sense of beauty plays a big role there. Elegant theories, such as Abel’s group theory, Dirac’s quantum mechanics or Feynman graph, not only solved the problems at hand, but also opened doors for attacking many other difficult problems. Fred devotes a large section on aesthetics of science and explains how dedicated practitioners learn to appreciate the beauty over the years.
The last chapter is on interdisciplinary research, which, these days, often turn out to be placing experts from different areas in a room (or the same project) and expecting magic to happen. Fred explains why that magic turns out to be elusive. Experts in one field are usually novices in another, and it is often difficult for them to leave their own comfort zones to walk the full journey from novice to practitioner in other interdisciplinary areas.
“Into the Sciences” can be the perfect Christmas gift for someone starting graduate school or someone interested in leaving the comfort of one field to explore another one. All ninety pages of the book contain wise observations through numerous examples from different branches of science. You can buy it either from his website, or at Amazon. You can check out the first couple of chapters at this link. We plan to publish an interview with the author in a few days.