Science as Play
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.
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