Science as Play
Play in scientific research is seldom discussed in print. Perhaps we
scientists take it for granted. Or maybe we are a little
self–conscious and try to hide it from others. After all, we
don't want taxpayers to think they are subsidizing adults who are
acting like a bunch of kids, thereby squandering hefty amounts of
Play in science is thus an elusive and difficult topic. I chose to
examine it because I know how fundamental it is from my experience
as a practicing chemist and through the testimony of many
colleagues. In charting this little–explored territory, I
found that the extreme thesis—that science equals
play—is untenable. I content myself with the more modest
assertion that science has an element of play. Before relating some
possible explanations, let me offer a few examples.
Sir Isaac's Fun and Games
The written recollections of Newton's half–niece include the
following story. On January 29, 1697, Newton, then Warden of the
Mint, came home after a hard day's work to find waiting for him a
mathematical puzzle now known as the brachistochrone or
roller–coaster problem. The challenge was to find the curve
over which a mass rolling downhill under the influence of gravity
will move between specified starting and finish points in the
shortest time. Newton found the solution, the cycloid curve, before
going to bed. He said it was "child's play," a phrase that
suggests he took on the problem as much for amusement as anything else.
Similar entertainment (for both children and adults) comes from
puzzles, in particular jigsaw puzzles, which present their players
with two–dimensional fragments, each with a characteristic
shape, from which to reconstruct an overall picture. Piecing
together real–life jigsaw puzzles is part of what
archaeologists do. They have to reconstitute, for instance, an
ancient vase from the set of recovered shards, a task that requires
a lot of guessing and testing. Guessing the solution of a scientific
problem is typically much more involved. Yet it has many
similarities with a jigsaw puzzle. When putting together a solution,
the scientist inspects each piece for a possible fit with its
neighbors and, bit by bit, constructs a whole argument.
Those most facile with jigsaw puzzles are able to divine what piece
will fit even before trying it. Similarly, the best scientists are
the ones who make the best guesses. That is, just having the ability
to guess is not enough; one has to come up with the right
answer—and before the competition does. One example of such a
guessing game in science involved Dorothy Wrinch and Linus Pauling.
Both were trying in the late 1930s and early '40s to guess the
structure of proteins by building physical models of them. Pauling
outguessed Wrinch. His theory, with alpha helices and beta sheets as
the well–ordered structural modules, was correct. Her cyclol
theory, which was based on rings, turned out to be wrong.
But scientists do not play only at outguessing one another; they
also play with toys (as do engineers, a point made recently in these
pages by Henry Petroski; see "Early Education,"
Engineering, May–June 2003). A fellow chemist, Joseph
B. Lambert, who is a professor at Northwestern University, shed some
light on the roots of this tendency in a letter he wrote to me a few
When I grew up, every kid put in some serious
sandbox time, and it often involved building (what seemed like)
complex sand structures around which fantasies were composed and
competitions took place with neighborhood kids. The organic
chemistry labs (at Yale during the junior year) were fun in the
same way. We constructed molecules and competed with each other
in the class on speed and yield. We mixed things up, and
chemical transformations took place. We separated, we isolated,
we analyzed. The odors were pleasant, and the physical process
of working with our hands, as with sand, was satisfying. The
biweekly organic labs became the high points of my week. By the
end of the year, I knew that I wanted to be an organic chemist,
as I realized one could play in the sandbox for a living.
Indeed, many scientists amuse themselves by tinkering with the
various toys of their trade. They come up with ingenious devices to
get a particular job done or divert a piece of commercial equipment
from its original purpose for novel scientific uses. The apparatus
that Robert Millikan and graduate student Harvey Fletcher cobbled
together to measure the charge of the electron (involving, among
other things, a perfume atomizer bought at the local drugstore) is a
classic example of such inspired tinkering. A more recent one is
found in the work of Salvador Moncada of the Wellcome Research
Laboratories in England. He adapted a device intended for measuring
vehicle emissions to studying the production of nitric oxide in
biological tissues. As any experimentalist will testify, getting
such things to work not only conserves grant money, it's also good fun.
Flying Down to Rio
People often like to pretend they are something they are not. Just
consider the goings–on during Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro or
Mardi Gras in New Orleans—temporary indulgences that only
serve to call attention to the ordinary intolerance of such raucous behavior.
Whereas larger society keeps a lid on the carnival spirit, science
encourages and nurtures the playful wearing of a mask and other
forms of irreverence towards authority. Take the funny names
chemists have given to various polycyclic hydrocarbons:
propellane, paddlane, pagodane, twistane, windowpane,
not to mention bastardane. Their labels for new ketones do
not lag far behind, with penguinone and megaphone.
Acids? Let me only mention moronic and traumatic
acids. I could go on and on: Each class of organic molecules
includes a few such tongue–in–cheek monikers. Similar
fun is had in other fields of science, as for instance by physicists
who have named a class of elementary particles quarks, of
which charm is one of the flavors.
Why, what's the point of all this foolishness? The discoverers of a
new particle and the makers of a new molecule are entitled to give
it a name. Do they abuse their privilege by coming up with a funny
one? Not really. Playful terms transfer the vernacular of the
laboratory to the more formal written language of publications. In
doing so, they gently flaunt seriousness and authority. They wittily
show irreverence. They are the equivalent of the child who sticks
out a tongue at someone in derisive defiance.
Hoaxes are another product of the playfulness of scientists.
Consider a relatively recent example: the "Plate of
Brasse," which states England's claim to California and was
supposedly engraved by Sir Francis Drake's party during his visit in
1579. The plate was discovered in the 1930s. After it was declared
genuine, it became the state's greatest historical document. But in
1977, Helen Michel and Frank Asaro, who were then both on the staff
of the Nuclear Science Division of Lawrence Berkeley National
Laboratory, used neutron–activation analysis to
re–examine the piece. They showed that the copper and zinc
alloyed to make the brass were of higher purity than would have been
available in the 16th century. Drake's plate was likely crafted,
they concluded, between the second half of the 19th century and
1936, when it was first brought to light.
Last year historians at the University of California, Berkeley,
announced that the artifact was devised as a practical joke,
conceived by a group of friends of Herbert E. Bolton, who directed
the Bancroft Library at Berkeley from 1920 to 1940. Bolton, it
seems, was intrigued by tales of Drake having installed a plate to
record his visit to California, so much so that he often urged his
students to look for it. Some of Bolton's chums eventually decided
to pull the professor's leg. But things went awry after Bolton went
public and announced that the ersatz relic was authentic before the
pranksters were able to warn him off.
Clearly, hoaxes can be dangerous it they get out of control. But
most remain safely confined to the laboratory, where they sometime
serve a healthy function, one best demonstrated with another
example. Some years ago Nathan S. Lewis, a professor of chemistry at
Caltech, and a graduate student were doing experiments in the
laboratory of a senior colleague, Harry Gray. Another
coworker—whom I'll just call Fred—had the habit of going
through their data and rushing to Gray with his interpretation.
Lewis decided to set a trap for him. He recalls:
I manufactured an NMR spectrum that was a terrific
result. We left it out as bait. [Fred] took it and wrote up a
paper on how important this result was. He was ready to go right
to [the Journal of the American Chemical Society]. He
had taken hook, line, and sinker on the manufactured piece of
data. We didn't let him mail it, but we let him gloat around for
a couple of days. This stopped him temporarily from taking our
data and interpreting it before making sure it was right.
Lewis clearly taught Fred a valuable lesson—the importance of
personally ensuring the reliability of experimental data. But is the
playfulness of scientists generally so helpful? Could it even be
detrimental to the advancement of knowledge? This is a legitimate
question. One might argue that practical jokes, at least in
academia, are a waste of time. They divert resources into
questionable actions, and to most outsiders they are not even funny.
So why do it?
Perhaps play is an integral part of the human condition and spirit.
If true, this explanation is still insufficient, it being too
general. The psychologist's answer might be that scientists tend to
play because science presents them with a surfeit of seriousness.
Again, such an assertion is unsatisfactory. Many other professions
have their dull and their anxious moments too.
There is another possibility: Scientists like to play because they
are close to being children themselves. Some disciplines,
mathematics especially, enjoy a reputation for the narrow window of
creativity in youth. Moreover, much of science takes place in
academic settings, where young people amass to receive education
from a few professors. Thus, as this particular answer proposes, a
youthful spirit comes to permeate the enterprise.
To me, this answer seems superficial. I prefer to believe that there
is some cognitive value to the playful element in science. Playing
with ideas is, after all, what science is about. It can be solitary
amusement or it can be a collective game, as when physicists or
mathematicians gather in front of a blackboard trying out new ideas.
I can personally vouch for the games chemists are wont to play. When
we set up encounters between various chemicals, our expectations
extend those of the child who has been given a paint box and tries
mixing various colors just to see what comes out. In the same mood,
the chemist asks himself what would happen were he to change the
proportions or modify the sequence of the operations in a complex
synthesis. Such a playful, childlike attitude can be extremely
fruitful. Let us not be too embarrassed to acknowledge that play is
often what motivates us.