G. V. Pavan Kumar discusses the constructive role of unstructured conversations in scientific research.
This semester I am teaching a course on interdisciplinary optics to about 200+ sophomore undergraduate students. The class encompasses diverse audience with varied interest, and I have been exploring some topics at the interface of optics and other disciplines. After we finish a class, I invariably have a conversation with a few students who have specific questions not only on the topics I have been teaching, but also on general optical phenomena. Since these questions arise totally out of interest of the students, I strongly encourage them and spend as much time as possible to address them. What I have found during these conversations is that the quality of questions is very good. I have found that I can answer only a few of them, but invariably it makes me think about it in greater detail, and further motivates me to consult relevant literature so that I can address the question in depth. This process of informal conversation is one of the enriching experiences of teaching. This has made me think about the role of conversation in science, especially in an informal way, and how it has influenced my thinking as a researcher.
During my undergraduate and postgraduate years, I frequently visited Raman Research Institute (RRI) in Bangalore. I did spend a lot of time in the RRI library, which I think is one of best in the country, especially for science literature. Thanks to great conversations and encouragement of Prof. G. Srinivasan and Prof. G.S. Ranganath, who were scientists at RRI (now retired), I was able to learn very interesting aspects of astronomy, astrophysics, optics, thermodynamics and soft-matter physics. Over informal conversations with them, I learnt interesting questions as diverse as: how stars form? What is the role of surface tension in formation of a soap bubble? Can an electron move faster than light in a specific medium? How diamonds shine light? How to measure colour? And many more…
Questions like these were per se not part of any curricula, but what I realized that the process of answering them took me on a mini intellectual-journey so to speak, and this process has had a tremendous influence on me and my work. What was fundamental to this process was the informal conversation that I had not only with the above-mentioned gentlemen, but also with my friends.
When I started my Ph.D. at JNCASR, I had a great set of batchmates with diverse interest in atomic, molecular and optical physics, high energy physics, condensed matter physics, all sub-disciplines of chemistry, molecular biology, ecology and fluid mechanics. Invariably, our informal conversations during coffee-break, lunch and dinner used to revolve around explaining some everyday phenomena from various viewpoints. These conversations were never meant to be serious. In fact most of the time it was a joke that we were trying to explain, but invariably, the humour was built on the relevant research an individual was doing, and this added great flavour to discussion, and ended up as a joyful learning experience. Surprisingly, the memories of certain moments that we spent during these informal conversations have still remained intact in my mind, and I cherish them.
After finishing my Ph.D., I moved to Barcelona, and then to the US. The informal conversations still played a critical role in my everyday research. Being in labs with great scientific, cultural, linguistic and artistic diversity, what I learnt was that the same science that I had learnt was viewed with different spectacles. It means analogies to explain a specific scientific concept depended on the person’s personal history. This added tremendous variety and richness to informal conversations on science. It also helped me appreciate diversity in viewpoints, and a bit of understanding on different cultures of doing science.
In my own research group, informal conversations on science and research play a very important role in our everyday research. Majority of the time we spend asking questions that help clarify our research, and further add new insights to the work we are doing. This process is generally through a conversation. Research students also learn from each other by talking on science in an informal way, and this percolation of knowledge is as important as reading research papers, and attending talks. Note that other form of scientific communication such as journals, research talks, posters are still the bedrocks of research, but the informal conversations on work plays a significant role in how we perform our research.
This human interaction through conversation is the reason why attending conferences and meetings is still a very important part of scientific life. Even when we have read research papers of an author, we obtain new insight on the same work when we converse with the author, in person. This valuable interaction adds a new dimension to our thoughts, and gives us an opportunity to express ideas which sometimes may get lost in formal communication channels.
Another intriguing but equally interesting aspect of doing science is to have an informal conversation with oneself on concepts and questions we are trying to address. Invariably, I end up understanding something when I try to explain it, first to myself and then to others. This process of “self-talk” is a very useful way to clarify ideas and identify a loophole in my own arguments. What is also interesting is that what we call as “our own thoughts”, are essentially words and images that we have borrowed from an external source. A quote attributed to Alan Watts nicely summarizes this point:
We seldom realize, for example, that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society.
Verbal conversations are important part of human interaction. We learn, unlearn and relearn many things by talking to each other in an informal setting. Not only we exchange ideas during conversations, but also create new ones. Let me end by quotingthe Oxford scholar Theodore Zeldine:
Conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits. When minds meet, they don’t just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, and engage in new trains of thought. Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards.
G.V. Pavan Kumar is a Associate Professor of Physics at IISER Pune. This article originally appeared here on his blog.