The odyssey of science

Posted by Pierre-Antoine Ullmo

May 3rd, 2020


“It’s the struggle along the way that truly is the scientific method. It is the failed experiments, ambiguous data, the tears and fallen ideas, not the statistical tests upon which our understanding of the world rests.”


In a recent article, Buzz Baum, Professor of Cell Biology at UCL, wrote about scientific research as an odyssey rather than a conquest. For those who are passionate about Ulysses, this comparison will come as no surprise. Ulysses was in many ways an anti-hero, witty and pragmatic, prioritising his return to Ithaca even at the expense of his own legend.

According to Baum, focusing almost exclusively on the “discoveries” is not telling anything about the successive failures, the difficulties, the mistakes that occurred during any research journey. The epic version of science creates false expectations. We are all waiting impatiently for an immediate COVID-19 vaccine, ignorant of the difficulties inherent in any scientific research.

Baum also questions the way in which science is published: “The difficulties involved in doing science aren’t communicated to the reader in papers published in brief in widely read journals.”

Peter Binfield, former editor of Public Library of Science (PLOS) (and quoted by David Weinberger, senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, in his book Too Big to Know), agrees with Baum: Scientific journals rarely publish research with negative results. (But), if you’re a researcher starting on a topic, it’s very useful to know what others tried and failed to make work.”

Back in 1970, Gaston Bachelard wrote in Formation of the Scientific Mind: “All knowledge is an answer to a question. Nothing is given. Everything is constructed.

In these times of a pandemic, the construction of scientific knowledge is at stake more than ever and threatened by a new sense of urgency; however, posing the right questions is a continuous challenge to scientific “authority”. Coming back to the Odyssey, Daniel Mendelsohn, in his book A Father, a Son and an Epic, tells us how his father, Jay (81), enrolled in his class about the Odyssey. Though he initially promised to sit at the back and stay still, he started expressing contradictory opinions about the poem, converting the class into a two-way process.

Another way of reminding us that the meeting of multiple perspectives makes research richer if not faster…

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

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