On Scientists

For whatever reason, scientists have reached some sort of weird, pop culture phenomenon where they’re humorously hailed as saviors of humanity. As incredibly intelligent people who will ultimately be the ones who offer us some kind of utopia.

Being close to the NIH, I hang out with many scientists, research fellows and the like. And I listen to their tales. Their frustrations, their daily lives. And let me assure you that despite whatever the internet tells you, they’re as ordinary flesh-and-blood human beings as you can imagine…

No, no really.

No, no really.

First, let me point out that scientists frequently have to get used to being wrong. The entire soul of the scientific method is in proving a theory to be correct or not. It only takes one small detail to be off for the theory to require correction and improvement. A theory is just a working model of reason that is meant to be improved upon and corrected until it’s a fact, or disproved entirely.

It requires a pragmatic mindset that is willing to follow the data and facts, regardless of where they take you and whether or not you like the results. Anyone with an agenda can and should be questioned by his peers. And jumping to conclusions is a fast track to losing all credibility. And let me assure you, there is such a thing as scientific misconduct.

Second, scientists are usually pretty bright people, but not full blown geniuses. They’re inclined towards a keen interest in knowledge and how the world works in general, much like how a man who loves cars might gravitate towards learning how engines operate. You could say they have a strong sense of philosophia (a love of knowledge/wisdom), geared towards our material world.

Sure, sometimes you get that genius-grade scientist, who can recite every element in atomic numbering order, or fully and accurately explain bio-molecular details to a T. But for the rest of them, they have the periodic table, text books, research journals with complimentary search engines, Google and a heuristic inclination to seek the information when they need it.

There are also foolish scientists.

I’ve heard horror stories about bad scientists, like Melvin pictured above. At best, they stay out of the way. At worst, they took sloppy data results, allowed samples to become contaminated, messed with calibrations and settings and all around made the lives and work of their fellow research teams pretty miserable. A hot mess doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Now, while scientists certainly deserve a healthy amount of credit for their work, a new fact or discovery is most critical when it can be applied to our daily lives. For that, we need people who can take a discovery and find ways to apply it, amplify it and in some way, distribute it. We need engineers too.

Look, the investors need SOME kind of bang for their buck, alright?

Look, the investors need SOME kind of bang for their buck, alright?

For example, take a look at the Haber-Bosch process. The chemical process pulls nitrogen from the air, which can be then be turned into ammonia, and fertilizers. The chemical conversion is only half the battle however, as the other half was an engineering feat that permitted the wide scale production of this process. To this day, the Haber-Bosch process feeds the world.

While the chemical process was valuable, it still needed to be amplified to be of use, hence the need for engineering. It’s a two way street where the scientific discovery is as necessary as the means to act upon it. Knowledge isn’t enough, there’s just so much more to it than that.

Then we have the religion versus science arguments. The stereotypical belief is that all scientists are atheists, firm proponents of Richard Dawkins. It’s all nothing new, going back at least as far as Galileo, although I’m sure others could find earlier examples of religious persecution for scientific curiosity and assertions. But these days, it might feel somewhat the other way around.

Children, children… it’s time to start playing nice.

Religions can offer a set of moral beliefs which we, in theory, act upon. Both sides can have a hard time with the live-and-let-live approach. Embryonic stem cell research, questions of evolution versus creationism versus intelligent design. We have a hard time leaving it be.

But let me assure you that there are scientists out there who are practicing their faith. And no, their spirituality does not interfere with their work. Nor does their faith disprove their findings or facts. People lie but verifiable data doesn’t. You don’t have to believe in God to just be respectful of others who do.

Still, whether one is religious or not, I think it healthy to constantly step back and ask oneself of the moral implications of a decision or act. Science is inviting for its sense of nobility, but one should always question whether the ends justify the means, lest we all end up as lab rats.

Another point of concern for scientists is the subject of reporting of results. It might take a hundred, if not a thousand, failed tests before getting the appropriate data, but not all failures gets reported upon. Science remains a fairly results oriented process.

In the ordinary world, we don’t need a million recipes of how not to bake a cake. But such errors can be useful for scientists, at least in determining before experimentation what does not work or has been investigated before. Hence the value of extensive research. And that is a lot of mind numbing work.

At the end of the day, such details might stymie the romantic and heroic suggestions of an occupation whose focus is about improvement and progress for humanity. I just think we got a bit carried away praising particular people who are just as interested in get drunk, paid and laid like the rest of us.

But neither should we deny them their due credit. Their work is frustrating, but important, and with respect to morality, ultimately makes life better for all of us. Just remember, they’re as human as the rest of us.

Pen, Paper, Processing

A lot of the earliest pencil and paper roleplaying games have tended to ease their formulas to provide the right mix of complexity with ease. A lot of basic math is applied to calculate certain values, which are then the basis of desired values for an act of chance, the results of which are reflected for better or worse in the game.

“But many game fans out there enjoy the depth of skill-based adventuring, not just action.”

The appeal of these roleplaying games has always been the sense of legitimate adventure confined more by the scopes of human imagination than the limited scopes of a digitally designed world. Combine this with a sense of social interaction these games require and you have a fun and flexible product to be shared with friends.

The computer and especially the smart phone have opened up new possibilities of complex skill-based calculations, story telling and dungeon creation. This ease of use often comes at a cost, as many of the worlds created in larger titles have been the signature of someone else’s vision.

The ordinary dungeon master in his room often has access to some tools for creating his own world, such as dungeon designers and map building applications. But to apply one’s pure, artistic mark to the creation using these tools is overshadowed by the visions of the artists who created them in the first place.

There’s no real solution to this. The difficulty here is art and science versus engineering. The artists focus on creating something, the sciences on discovery. But the engineer is bound by these visions, working within the confines of what is available. These dungeon builders and systems are tools for game engineering, and they are useful if not necessary. But creating original art is much more challenging, and there is no real way to formulize it.

It requires a vision that the machine isn’t able to provide, at least at the moment.

“Exploring things is a form of very vast, unrealized gambling.”

Going back to my original point, I’ve noticed that people enjoy these complexities of game rules. Forums are awash with break downs of how the math of Diablo II worked. Some fans grumble at the lost RPG elements found in Mass Effect, taken away and replaced with a simplified system combat and no real adventure elements outside of where a conversation can take you. Discussion of the value of skills and stats in the Fallout series is a major consideration.

Simple and accessible is certainly nice. But many game fans out there enjoy the depth of skill-based adventuring, not just action. Fighting and violence is not going anywhere. But the explorative nature of alternatives can breath a lot of addictive elements into a game, as a result of discovery.

Why is this? Probably because exploring things is a form of very vast, unrealized gambling. Maybe hacking that terminal will give you easy access to your goal, or bring security down on your head. Perhaps there’s nothing in that cave, or a mountain of treasure. When you open that door, you have no idea what’s behind it. Maybe it’s an army of guards. Maybe it’s the princess. Maybe it’s One-Eyed Willy’s rich stuff. Maybe it’s a rolling boulder. Who knows? Absolutely no one, until you find out.

For a while, that’s the direction that games were evolving. Sometimes we’re still moving in that direction, or at least toying with the concept. But I have a vision to create a world of infinitely renewable adventures. Where there’s always a story oriented goal, another door to open, a mountain to be climbed. No attempt at it has satisfied me thus far. Call me mad, but I know it can, and will, be done.