When I come across any book, I do two things : first, I take a glimpse at table of contents, and second, I read the preface/foreword to the book. The second part is generally revealing in its own way, as I get to learn not only about the content of the book, but also about the human side of the topic under study. Recently, I was reading a technical book. In there, I came across a foreword written by Jacques Friedel, in which he quotes his grandfather Georges Friedel, and a part of the quoted text is reproduced below :
…none of the three approaches – the naturalist, the physicist, and the mathematician – should be neglected and that a healthy balance must be preserved amongst them !……
The text in bold is my emphasis. This quote resonates with what I think is a good way of doing science. Let me elaborate a bit on this “trinocular” view of science.
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Naturalist: In this approach, one can cater to the curiosity of the self by absorbing and observing nature. In a way, this approach helps you to connect with a phenomenon at a personal level with a touch of imagination of ones own. The feeling of wonder is what plays a critical role to be a naturalist, and a naturalist approach is to take this grasp seriously, and wonder about why nature behaves the way it does. In a way, most of the children are naturalist. Also, this approach, in my view, is one of the fundamental aspect of what makes us human : the ability to wonder and question.
Physicist (scientist to be more general) : Once you observe a phenomenon or intrigued by a fact, the questions to ask are: why and how such a thing happens? To answer these questions, you need to bring in the existing knowledge of science and look into the problem at hand through this metaphorical lens. You will have to ask to what framework of concepts does your observation belong to, and try to cast your naturalist observation in this light. This helps you to identify the scientific parameters of the problem, i.e., the dependent and independent variables. With this knowledge about parameters, you can not only probe the system under study, but also control it in a systematic way (first step to engineering). Such a control gives us an intellectual platform to construct hierarchical structures, which can further serve as foundation to new phenomena and structures.
Mathematician : This viewpoint brings in the analytical framework to the observations at hand. From the scientific thought – via hypothesis, experiments and models, we would have obtained some insight into a problem. These building blocks can be further refined and articulated in a precise language, such that we can generalize the problem to a larger set of questions which can go beyond the system under study. This transfer of real to abstract picture is what make mathematics so powerful. It catches the essentials of the problem, and facilitates a framework for generalization, which can be further applied to a new problem.
What I have discussed above is a way (not the only way) to approach research in natural science. Interestingly, the above 3 approaches need not be considered in chronological order. The inspiration to study a natural phenomenon or anything for that matter can be initiated from any of the 3 approaches. A question or an observation in any one framework can be cast as a query in any other framework, and that is what makes pursuit of science so wonderful.
Perhaps, the most important lesson from the Friedel’s quote is to keep a healthy balance of all the three approaches while studying a natural process. Importantly, this triangulation and extrapolation of approaches is how you build knowledge : be it engineering, medicine, public policy or any facet of epistemology. At the heart of all these approaches is to look at a problem from multiple viewpoints and be open to adaptation, criticism, and revision.
After all, depth in view needs more than one cue !