What Makes Extraordinary Science Extraordinary

Nicole Yunger Halpern in Preposterous Universe:

NicoleyhI’ve been grateful for opportunities to interview senior scientists, over the past few months, from coast to coast. The opinions I collected varied. Several interviewees latched onto the question as though they pondered it daily. A couple of interviewees balked (I don’t know; that’s tricky…) but summoned up a sermon. All the responses fired me up: The more wisps of mist withdrew from the nature of extraordinary science, the more I burned to contribute.

I’ll distill, interpret, and embellish upon the opinions I received. Italics flag lines that I assembled to capture ideas that I heard, as well as imperfect memories of others’ words. Quotation marks surround lines that others constructed. Feel welcome to chime in, in the “comments” section.

One word surfaced in all, or nearly all, my conversations: “impact.” Extraordinary science changes how researchers across the world think. Extraordinary science reaches beyond one subdiscipline.

This reach reminded me of answers to a question I’d asked senior scientists when in college: “What do you mean by ‘beautiful’?” Replies had varied, but a synopsis had crystallized: “Beautiful science enables us to explain a lot with a little.” Schrodinger’s equation, which describes how quantum systems evolve, fits on one line. But the equation describes electrons bound to atoms, particles trapped in boxes, nuclei in magnetic fields, and more. Beautiful science, which overlaps with extraordinary science, captures much of nature in a small net.

More here.