Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The importance of perspective

I once watched a professor give an interview on writing. He recounted writing exercises that had helped his students to think creatively. One of his favorite assignments went something like this:
Imagine describing your school's cafeteria lunch. You might write about the gloppy goo served by surly workers, the boys flipping pats of butter so they stick to the ceiling (kids really did that at my high school!), or the limp and wilted salad bar. You've painted quite a picture, haven't you?

Now, imagine the same cafeteria scene with one change: You are desperately hungry. You haven't eaten a decent meal in weeks. How does this affect what you see?
Perspective plays an important role when studying scientific subjects, too. Here are two very different examples:

--Perspective & attitude

How many times have you heard someone say, "I'll never get that. I'm just not good at science." Or, maybe they've said that science is too hard or science is boring. Maybe you've said the same thing. Changing the way that you approach at the material can help you to enjoy science. Try to have a positive perspective with regard to new material. Tell yourself instead, "Yes, this is a challenging subject, but if I work hard I'll learn something new." Or even, "I'm good at science!" I think you'll be pleasantly surprised at what a difference it makes!

--Perspective & observational bias

Perspective also makes a difference when you are writing up observations during an experiment. I remember one time when I was looking at slides of stream water under a microscope. The light of the microscope was so hot that some of the teeny tiny critters would swim away from the center of the slide! If I was slow with my observations, I would have fewer creatures to describe in my field journal. The very act of studying the stream water affected what I saw. This effect is known as observational bias. Scientists work hard to reduce observational bias whenever possible.

Here's a picture of a tree taken from the trunk looking up. How different would this tree look if you changed perspective and looked at it from the leaves down?

Photo credit: Leon Brooks,

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