Science – at the edge of knowledge

Science is like throwing pebbles of knowledge into an ocean of the unknown. Foto: Petr Kratochvil (

One of the biggest realizations during my PhD so far was that doing science means that literally nobody has ever done whatever you are doing. Duh! That’s kind of the point of science, isn’t it? Generating new knowledge? Yes, but I was somewhat unaware of the consequences for me as a scientist. In a nutshell: If nobody has done what you are doing, nobody can tell you what to do. Nobody can help you! ….You are all alone ….. *freezes in dramatic theatrical pose*!

Of course, it’s not quite as dramatic. People will have used a similar method you can start from, and there is probably a bunch of research out there on your subject. But by the time you customize everything to your data and workflow, you might as well have started from scratch.

There is a famous metaphor for science. Doing science is like throwing small pebbles of knowledge into the ocean of the unknown. Pebble by pebble the floor rises and a path of knowledge emerges. In this metaphor as a university student you stand somewhere on shore, looking at a left-over puddle. You put your handful of pebbles at the exact spot of the puddle your professor points you to. You don’t really know what you are doing, but it works and you can see the boundaries of the problem.

In contrast, as a Phd student, you walk up to the edge of the ocean for the first time. An endless sea of problems waiting to be solved. What an overwhelming view! And then you have to decide where to throw your pebbles. Your supervisors may give you a general area to work with or some specific sort of pebble, but ultimately, the decision is yours. The sheer amount of possibilities! The vagueness and the size of the endeavor of filling the entire ocean with knowledge is mind-boggling! At least, that is how I feel and it was a big part of my scientific identity crisis I wrote about in a previous blog.

Lucky for me, I don’t have to fill up the entire ocean all by myself. The shore is a busy place. Some people are just as overwhelmed as I feel and we can try to figure out where we should go to throw in our pebbles together. Some seem to be far ahead, but then again, if it is not the direction I am heading, how could they be? At the tip of narrow winding paths, you can see well organized groups, throwing bucket after bucket of pebbles into the water. And from time to time you meet a person, who is not so busy with pebbles, but makes sure to help all the new people on the shore to figure out what to look for and what might be a good spot for them. So I, too, start to look closer at the pebbles I have in my hands, and I realize that they only really fit in in certain areas directly at the shallow shore. I kneel down and concentrate on my little corner of the shore, so that I can pretend there is a limit to what I am doing and I am not so overwhelmed all the time. Every now and then, however, I look up and stare at the horizon of the unknown, shivering in the wind that blows over the edge of knowledge.

Elisa Klein

Find me here:
Pre-Collapse Website
Twitter: @Elisa_Klein_
And on Research Gate

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