How to Think Like a Scientist

How to Think Like a Scientist
Posted by Chad Orzel
Thrilling legal documents

Thrilling legal documents

I have made allusions to a work-in-progress at various points recently, but my general policy is not to reveal any details until things become official. Well, as you can see from the above photo of signed contracts, it’s official: I sold the work-in-progress to Basic Books, my publisher for How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog. The contract calls for 70,000 words (which most likely means the first draft will clock in at 110,000…) of a work tentatively titled How to Think Like a Scientist (because I’m only allowed to publish books with “How to…” in the title…).

So, what is this? Well, like my other books, it’s grown out of stuff I’ve written on the blog, particularly Science Is What Makes Us Human, Science Is Our Human Heritage, and especially Everybody Thinks Scientifically. It’s not a talking-physics-to-the-dog book (Emmy is disappointed, and sulking…), but a big-picture book on science in a broader sense.

The core argument, as in those blog posts, is that the process of science– looking at the world, thinking of possible explanations for how it works, testing those models by experiment, and telling everyone the results– is an essential human activity, something every human is capable of. And, in fact, every human does make use of this process, in a wide range of everyday activities. Millions of people who don’t think of themselves as scientists are, in fact, thinking like scientists every day, in pursuit of hobbies and other activities they enjoy.

The plan is to lay out that basic process, then illustrate it with a bunch of examples, taking some everyday hobby activity, showing how it relies on some aspect of scientific thinking, and showing how a historical scientific discovery relied on a process analogous to what is used in that hobby. Draft chapters compare playing bidding card games like bridge to the Rutherford, Marsden, and Geiger experiment that discovered the structure of the atom, doing crossword puzzles to piecing together the improbable structure of quantum physics, and playing basketball to precision timekeeping. I’m currently working on something using On the Origin of Species to argue that Rutherford’s “physics and stamp collecting” quote maybe ought to be considered less as a dig at biologists than as a compliment to stamp collectors.

This is, obviously, rather different than anything else I’ve written, and it’s going to be a bit of a challenge in a number of ways. It’s going to have some more personal anecdotes in it (meaning I’ll have to walk the line between including enough to be charming while not including so much as to seem egotistical), it’s going to involve a lot of historical anecdotes (meaning a lot of time chasing references on the Internet and in the library), and it’s going to involve talking about science outside my own area of expertise (meaning I’ll need beta readers– I’m already lining up biologists to correct my egregious errors about Darwin). and, of course, I’m trying to do this while serving as department chair, and with two little kids in the house.

It’s going to be a ton of work in the next year (delivery date is Jan 1, 2014), but I think it’ll also be a lot of fun, for really geeky values of “fun.” It will undoubtedly take a toll on the blog, though– most of my non-work-related writing time will need to be spent on the book, not here. Some bits and pieces that get cut out of the book are sure to end up on the blog, though, which I hope will whet people’s appetites for the eventual book.

So, anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to, and what I’ll be up to. And, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go read some more Darwin.