Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Theory "vs" Practice

Today's Wild Side science column from the NYT (guest blogged by Stephen Quake) is an interesting Roscharch test for which side you fall on in the 'theory-practice' divide. The article in fact argues a very valid point: that great research is often done by moving smoothly between theoretical study and practical applications, rather than privileging one over the other. Along the way, he cites Gauss, Kelvin, Archimedes and others as examples of people doing solid theoretical work inspired by, and inspiring, more practical considerations.

I mention the Roscharch test because (like with political commentary) one often tends to read bias or skew into neutral statements. For example, practitioners will find much to be happy about in this opening:
The snobbish idea that pure science is in some way superior to applied science dates to antiquity

and theoreticians will be consoled by:
The stereotyped view is that the applied scientists control the lion’s share of funding, while the basic scientists control the most prestigious journals and prizes.

but if you can get beyond your reflexes, it's a fair article about the need to think broadly about the "impact" of your work both theoretically and practically, and how this can lead to solid research on both counts.
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