Turns out, an astronaut these days is more likely to be a physicist than a fighter pilot. We don’t know whether to be surprised or disappointed… but it raises some questions — and we wanted answers.
So, with the launch of our Astral Collection, we cornered SPOKESman Paolo Barucca, a theoretical physicist at the London Institute for Mathematical Sciences (LIMS), and tried to understand what does a theoretical physicist do all day — and how does it make you a better man?
Here, he captures his experience in a formula for scientific success. Because, you know, they love a formula, these scientists. And so do we.
- Sharpen your elbows
“Research is wildly competitive. And it’s part of the reason why the Americans and the Russians found the Space Program a natural channel for their aggression. Both sides wanted to demonstrate the superiority of their social models through scientific dominance. The consequence was a flood of extraordinary theories emerging on both sides. Be ready for a scrap.”
2. Brace for criticism
“If you are not being criticised, you are doing it wrong. If you are genuinely breaking new ground, doing something that no one has done before, people will tell you that’s because it’s pointless or impossible — so you’re either dull or crazy. But relax. The alternative to criticism is being ignored. Much worse.”
3. Prepare to be wrong. But stick to your guns.
“This is a really tough balancing act, and one we all struggle with. Unlike most professions, in ours, you get proven totally, objectively wrong, all the time. We have a saying: ‘If it’s not falsifiable, it’s not science.’ We are so much fun at parties. But seriously, there’s no room in science for self-fulfilling prophecies. You can construct a beautiful theory and cherry-pick your evidence, but the data will find you out. Having said all that — and this is the tricky bit — once you reach your conclusion, you *really* have to believe in it. You must invest in it. Because if you don’t believe your theory, no one will.”
4. Break it down
“All great scientists start their projects with thought experiments, where they consider simplified systems stripped down to their essentials. You’ve got to achieve that sort of clarity before you are ready to take on messy reality, and run some experiments. It’s a lot like abstract art — an idea I’ve been exploring recently in our Art & Science project at LIMS with the illustrator Caterina Ferrante. We’ve been trying to break down scientific ideas visually — and the results are often beautiful.
“The idea of the solitary genius figuring things out on his own is profoundly misleading. It’s just not how most science is done. There’s a wonderful blog by a chap called Terence Tao. Ironically he’s an actual mathematical genius — but his point is that you don’t need to be a genius to do useful mathematics. In fact, it’s better not to be. It’s better to work in a group and see what others are doing, and be humble, and talk to them directly. Genius insulates you from the ideas that will elevate your own.”
6. Break Rules
“The best scientists go beyond everybody’s limits, including their own. Most stereotypes describe us as bookish nerds — but I prefer Doc Brown from Back to the Future as a popular image. Fundamentally we’re adventurous and rough free-spirits. We hate boundaries, limits, prohibitions. The best science is carried out by rule-breakers. It’s fundamentally anti-authoritarian.”
7. Have Courage
“Space exploration has been a passion of mine, too. The astronaut is a brilliant encapsulation of the scientist as an adventurer. Ultimately all scientists are like astronauts, because by definition we are exploring the outer limits. The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano put this better than I will — ‘I move two steps closer; it moves two steps further away. I walk another ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps further away. As much as I may walk, I’ll never reach it. So what’s the point…? The point is this: to keep walking.’”
To find Paolo’s Pick of the SPOKE range click here. We’re offering 10% off his choices ’til Sunday 1st October— just use code ONESMALLSTEP.