One of the best things about a science education is that it teaches you to see the bones beneath the skin.
In some cases, literally (hello there, anatomy people!), but mostly in the sense that we learn to see the hidden processes that drive the physical world. Being a scientist means you’ll never look at a seashell or a mai tai quite the same way again.
We all still appreciate the aesthetics, of course. I have always enjoyed scrolling around a microscope slide and “playing tourist” before getting down to work, and I don’t think I’ve ever met a biologist who didn’t have genuine fondness for his experimental organism. But laid on top of that is another layer of understanding that not everyone has the opportunity to enjoy. There’s a lot of pleasure in looking at complex and confusing systems and see their underlying structure.
Which is why I was very surprised at myself when I realized that until recently I’d been completely oblivious to another set of the world’s bones. I’d been observant, but only selectively.
As you may have already read here, I am a biologist who now designs and builds scientific equipment for a living. Most of my job involves programming what are called “embedded systems”: those little computerized controls that live in your refrigerator and your PCR machine. As I learn more about them, I have begun to live in the engineer’s equivalent of that cartoon.
For example: I made a stop at the grocery store this morning, and that included a visit to the deposit redemption machine with my empties. As I was sleepily loading bottles into the machine, I suddenly found myself perceiving every individual action the machine was making — positioning the bottle, reading the barcode, pulling it into the hopper, incrementing the refund amount — and mentally writing the firmware that could perform those actions. I also realized that I knew what conditions would make the machine throw an error, such as loading bottles too fast, and what that told me about the design. I always understood what the machine did, but now I was starting to clearly see how it did it.
A few minutes later, I turned into the dairy aisle of the nearly deserted store, and noticed that all of the cases were unlit. Then, one by one, the lights clicked on with a faint ping ahead of me, keeping pace with me as I walked. “Hey, nice feature!” I thought, and the next moment, the necessary circuit design and code popped into my head.
I have clearly reached an important tipping point. Not only do I design embedded systems, I see and comprehend embedded systems in my environment. The last time something like this happened, I was in grad school, and I truly “got” biological systems for the first time.
I am lucky to have friends who are very skilled in many different fields – cops, gardeners, martial artists, engineers — and I tossed this idea at them for discussion. All of them agreed that this kind of seeing is absolutely critical, and has to be cultivated. One martial artist called it “kenshō”, a Japanese word which translates roughly as “seeing the essence”. An engineer friend put it this way:
“[I do this] all the time. There are a couple of different levels. You can see the bones – it doesn’t have to be embedded systems. It can be why the supports on a table are made the way they are, air ducts that run between joists to give you more headroom in your basement, why doors push inward… So, the first level is seeing what is and how it works. The next level is seeing the stupidity in bad designs all around you. 4 legged tables on an uneven tile floor when 3 legs wouldn’t rock. Illogical sequences to get your coffee pot programmed, bad traffic light sequences that waste everyone’s time. I think “Hey, nice feature!” is harder than “that’s stupid” and a deeper level because it is less obvious when things work well than when something sucks.”
Cultivating kenshō in fields other than biology is powerful, even if you’re not planning to change careers. An alertness to another field of knowledge, such as writing, can provide a depth to your work that would otherwise be absent. But you have to actively develop this awareness. Here’s what’s been working for me as I continue to develop as a tool-builder:
Seeing what is. I should have realized that a three-legged table would not rock, because I passed geometry in eighth grade: any three points define a plane, so the legs of a three-legged table will automatically be stable. But I had not consciously connected that mathematical fact to the design problem. Most designed things have reasons for being the way they are, so ask “why” of the designed world the same way you ask it of the natural world. Remember what you already know, and remember to really see.
Seeing bad design. This can actually be somewhat difficult, because as a long-time bench scientist, I had just accepted that I was going to have to live with whatever my equipment made me do. I would just sort of mold myself around the equipment. Thinking about design requires a more active role, and a willingness to “hack” existing tools to make them better. I get to do this all the time in my job, but it’s really accessible to anyone. One nice thing to play with is ergonomics: you can make easy and reversible hacks to many bench tools with moldable, removable sculpting materials like Sugru or Instamorph. If you’re feeling more ambitious, see if your institution has a “boneyard” of old, unloved scientific equipment that has annoying features, and see if you can improve them.
Finding great design. I have begun looking for especially pleasing or clever tools, both in the biology lab and elsewhere. My most recent acquisition was a very old and magnificently balanced left-handed scythe, found in an antique store in rural Texas, but you can start by looking around your lab. Here’s a few examples of scientists doing just that, and they’re a fun read. https://bluelabcoats.wordpress.com/2010/03/05/hot-scientific-equipment1/, http://www.reddit.com/r/labrats/comments/2y6wzm/we_have_to_spend_out_a_grant_whats_your_favorite/, and, for an aesthetic angle, https://storify.com/NatureNews/myscilab.
Have you been reaching for this kind of understanding yourself, in any field? I’d love to hear about it. Post in the comments, or if you’d rather, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.