Letter 7: Minnie considers the bounds of the scientific ‘comfort zone’

Thu, Sep 27, 2012 by Online Dialogue

Online Dialogue

Dear John,

I’m beginning to accept that many telescopes are moving towards a more automated data reduction process and that not understanding the intricacies of data reduction does not equate to being a poor astronomer. But this is ok because, as you say, the “skeptical and cautious user” will keep the system in check. Besides, ultimately it’s up to me to figure out how much (or how little) I want to understand where my data came from and how it all works, right?

I completely agree that talking to people in different fields can be inspiring, thought provoking and a great help in making you think outside the box. Even in my own limited experience, I’ve found chatting to astronomers who focus mainly on objects in our own galaxy have enabled me to see my research on far-away galaxies from a different perspective. I think Richard Feynman is the bee’s knees, and one of the cool things he talks about in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! is his fascination of biology, and his ability to apply his physics methods to biology problems. So I’m absolutely an advocate of encouraging scientists to talk to people outside of their areas of expertise!

Although I think this is theoretically a wonderful idea, I’m not at all sure it’s practical in today’s astronomy climate. Most astronomers and astronomy students are too time-poor (doing science, writing papers, applying for funding) to chat with their collaborators, let alone find time to chat with people working outside of their field. At my institution we have afternoon coffee where we discuss nothing and everything. A few weeks ago we had great fun working through the xkcd comic about throwing a baseball at close to the speed of light. Afternoon coffee has enabled me to get to know my colleagues a lot better and has in fact paved the way for some cool collaborative projects that I would not have thought of myself. However, not everyone attends afternoon coffee, and when I’ve asked some of my other colleagues why they do not go, they tell me they don’t have time. Another example is when people don’t attend colloquia that aren’t in their field. But isn’t that the whole point? To attend a colloquium about something you knew nothing about, so you can see what’s going on outside of your (scientific) comfort zone?

I feel very strongly that science is all about collaboration. With our ever-increasing sphere of knowledge, no single person can know everything. This is why we need collaborations, where each person can contribute their particular skill-set to address science problems! What’s it like where you work? How have you managed to ‘cross-fertilize’ your science?

Clear skies,

Minnie

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