Adrian Gaylard: Deep Personal Feelings

Adrian Gaylard has a degree in Physics with maths, and works in automotive aerodynamics for a leading UK manufacturer. He has a career interest in computational fluid dynamics, and is both a chartered Physicist and Chartered Engineer.

I have very deep personal feelings about science. As that might sound a little strange let me explain: one of my earliest memories is being woken by my father and carried into our living room; he placed me in front of a tiny black and white TV. It was 1969 and man had just landed on the moon. I was four years old, but to this day I remember the sense of wonder and awe that scene provoked.

As a small child the wonder took hold of me. I ran around our garden in a toy spacesuit (complete with goldfish bowl helmet!) for many happy hours trying to imagine what it had been like for Armstrong and Aldrin. The significance of the events took some years to sink in. Using a body of knowledge about the universe and expressing it as engineering a few humans had been blasted out of the earth’s atmosphere, travelled through over two hundred-thousand miles of inhospitable vacuum; landed on the earth’s enigmatic companion; walked its surface and returned safely home. It remains an absolutely amazing achievement.

Reflecting on those events, and what led up to them, made me deeply curious about the nature of the universe - how things worked and why. It also started me thinking about technology and what it could achieve.

Over the years these feelings crystallized into a range of questions: what is the moon? What makes it orbit the earth? How do rockets work? What are all those stars?

As my school years crawled slowly by - or at least seemed to - I was gradually introduced to the collections of knowledge we know as physics, chemistry and maths. Slowly, some of my questions began to find answers; I began to think up more.

This was how the importance of science began to dawn on me: it started to see it as a systematic and reliable body of knowledge that contained answers and provided ways of finding answers where they did not exist.

As I studied physics I learnt, as various models of the atom were raised and dismissed, how science works through the proposal of clear, testable, ideas of what something might be or how it might work. These are what scientists call hypotheses. They are tested, criticised and refined. Out of this crucible a series of ever more accurate and useful descriptions of nature are found; each better than the last.

To me this encompasses something of the essence of science: it is never finished. Ideas are always open to question; they are mercilessly tested against existing knowledge and new experiments. Eventually they stand or fall, not on the basis of who had the idea or how popular it has become, but on the quality of the evidence that supports them. It is true that human frailties like ego and greed may prevail for a time; but in the end the juggernaut of scientific progress moves remorselessly onwards, crushing ideas that have failed the test: in the end it’s the best ideas that win - and only until something better comes along!

It is this respect for carefully asking questions of nature and being bound by the answers that enables science to be at the same time a body of knowledge developed by people with the full range of ordinary human frailties and a self-correcting guide to the universe we live in. Science is for everyone: it transcends boundaries of time, culture and place. It is the quest to provide answers that are as true for me as they are for you: this is incredibly exciting.

Yet science is about more than knowledge; it’s also about the methods by which knowledge is uncovered. Some of these important methods are about making sure that you are seeing what is really there in an experiment, rather than seeing what you want to see: I learnt this lesson the hard way when I was studying for my physics degree. The famous physicist Richard Feynman once said of science, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool.”

In one memorable lab I was required to determine the numerical aperture of an optical fibre (this is a number that describes the range of angles over which an optical system can accept or emit light). The experimental apparatus was crude: an optical fibre connected at one end to a device for measuring the intensity of light that it had captured; at the other sat a light source pointing at the bare end of the fibre, along with a crude system for measuring the angle between the two.

I remember that I had pretty clear expectations of the result: with the light source shining straight down the fibre - their axes parallel - it is pretty obvious that the maximum amount of light would be captured by the fibre. Increase the angle and this will fall away. The resulting curve of intensity versus angle, I expected, would be symmetrical about the “straight down its throat position” and have a nice “bell shape”.

Even with a crude experiment and a light intensity reading that didn’t really settle for each reading: that is exactly what I got. I don’t think there was any conscious dishonesty at work, and neither did my lecturer: as far as I was concerned I was just setting angles and reading numbers off a digital voltmeter. The symmetry and orderliness was all natures doing!

In reality I saw what I wanted to see; what I was expecting to find. Later I learned about a French physicist called Blondlot who did something similar. He convinced himself that he could see the effect of a new form of radiation - ‘N Rays’. When he was visited by a sceptical scientist called R. W. Wood it all unravelled: Wood removed a key piece of his experiment, without him knowing. Without this component in place there was no way he could see these ‘N rays’ if they were real. He continued to see them - they did not exist outside his mind.

Because we tend to see what we want, scientists have developed ways of making sure that human expectations don’t determine the results. In some experiments automatic, computer-controlled systems can make the measurements for us. When this isn’t possible experiments can be designed so that the experimenter doesn’t know what to expect. If, in my experiment, someone else had read the voltmeter and I had set the angle between the light source and the end of the fibre - and neither of us was able know what the other was measuring - our expectations couldn’t have influenced the results. This important scientific principal is called blinding. It’s used in many areas of science and engineering. It’s just one of the ways that makes sure scientific knowledge doesn’t reflect the frailties of the scientists: that we don’t fool ourselves.

When I finished my degree and started working, I soon found that I had drifted away from physics and into engineering. I became, and still am, passionately interested in vehicle aerodynamics. In various jobs I have helped make trains, cars and even Olympic swimmers move through air (water in the case of the swimmers!) more efficiently.

I am still captivated by science; fascinated by the way understanding how the natural world works can help solve engineering problems. I haven’t forgotten the lessons of my scientific training either. Whenever I am asked to design an experiment where drivers rate the way a car feels, due to its aerodynamic characteristics, when they drive it: I always think of either Blondlot and his ‘N rays’, or a younger me crouched over a crude experiment in an optics lab. This makes me always ask that the test drivers are unaware how, or even whether, the car has been changed! Blinding is important even in engineering!

Outside of work, when friends tell me that some crazy alternative therapy (like homeopathy or reflexology) worked for them, I remember the same lesson: if we expect a treatment to make us feel better - and we are aware that we are being treated - there is a powerful chance that, as long as we are not seriously ill, it will.

This is just one small illustration of a larger truth: science is about much more that facts, figures, laws and equations. It’s a unique and powerful way of looking at the world we live in; one that helps us find real answers and tries to ensure that we are not fooling ourselves. It’s about values like respect for good evidence, over opinion or anecdote; it’s a state of mind that makes you criticize your own ideas - test them in a way that you think might break them. It’s about respecting the answers that nature gives to questions carefully asked.

For me, one of the most beautiful things about science is that it equips you to think for yourself; to engage critically with what other people tell you; to take no ones word for it.

So, when I gaze at the sky - thanks to my scientific training - I now know that the moon is a rocky and barren satellite that orbits the earth; that the force of gravity binds it to the earth and the earth to it. I know that rockets work by expelling burning gases accelerated to high velocity, generating a propulsive force. And that stars are incredibly distant, massive glowing balls of ionized gas - thermonuclear fusion reactors that produced the elements from which we are made.

And yet, when I look at the moon and stars on a clear night I may as well be four years old again - struck with awe and wonder.

One Comment

  1. bernard holt
    Posted October 26, 2009 at 7:54 PM | Permalink | Reply

    I read with interest your article which from a scientific viewpoint was excellent however it fails to see the full rounded picture of you as an individual ("Perhaps it was not meant to") which is as important if not more important than your grasp of science.Science is clinical and soluable individules are diverse and far more complex.

    Best Wishes Bernard.

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