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'Knowing' in science


Having a scientific mind
Francis Crick Scientist
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I don’t think I have a special mind, I think I have a… the sort of mind that most scientists have. They’re curious about the world and then they learn the way of approaching things scientifically, which is not a natural way of… of doing things. It was… I mean it… it was a very… almost a freaky way of doing things. The Chinese never really discovered it, for example, nor did any other civilisation. It started, probably, with the Greeks but it really developed in Europe with Galileo. All the people before that, they don’t sound like real scientists, they sound like people who were groping towards scientists. But Galileo sounds like a real scientist, he… you… his words… he uses the arguments one would use today. He knew how to… he knew how to do experiments and how to argue from experiments, and he know how to… how to erect general principles, as it were, to explain the experiments, not just a… re-description in their own terms, you see. And… I don’t think that’s particularly natural, I think that’s what you have to learn. The curiosity is natural but the method of explanation is not the natural one. Our… our hunter gatherer ancestors didn’t need to… to… the scientific method, they needed rough and ready rules of thumb, so that… so that they could get by and generalise quickly from one instance and make the right decision, you know. It was more important to make the decision than to actually know the exact reasons you were making it. That’s very unscientific, you see. Now, it is true that when you come to the choice of a scientific problem, you have to do that, you have to use a sort of more intuitive approach, you can’t explain exactly why you think this is a good one and that is a bad one. You may give some reasons but it’s not obvious that they are the real reasons. As in many other things of life, the reasons people give are not necessarily the true reasons that are motivating their brain, you might say. But… but nevertheless the actual way that you approach it and the way you try to disprove theories, for example, by doing well designed experiments and doing what are called controls which the ordinary person has no idea really what a control is, it’s an experiment done to rule out some rather simple other… alternative explanation and that’s called a control. You know, the typical one is the man who… who drank gin and… and water, and whiskey and… and water, and brandy and water and every time he got intoxicated, so he decided it must be water. Well, to a scientist that isn’t a joke at all, because he should have done the control and just drunk the water.

The late Francis Crick, one of Britain's most famous scientists, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. He is best known for his discovery, jointly with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins, of the double helix structure of DNA, though he also made important contributions in understanding the genetic code and was exploring the basis of consciousness in the years leading up to his death in 2004.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Europe, Galileo

Duration: 2 minutes, 32 seconds

Date story recorded: 1993

Date story went live: 24 January 2008