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Friday, July 18, 2008

Scientist Appreciation: Paul L. Nunez

Things seem to have worked out nicely. It is Friday, and I just got a little further in the enjoyable book from the library I mentioned taking out yesterday. My appreciation for the book translates to the lead author of the book, and I am thus set to make another contribution to the (made up by me for the purposes of this blog) field of Scientist Appreciation.

Dr. Paul L. Nunez sounds like a pretty cool guy (in my somewhat biased opinion). Why is he so cool, you might ask? Well, he has a highly interdisciplinary background that is very similar to the path that I plan to take (albeit, he switched to neuroscience a fair bit later in his career). He got his PhD in Engineering Physics (which is the old name for the University of Toronto's Engineering Science, the program I started in. Nunez got his degree from University of California at San Diego, though I assume the programs would be at least somewhat similar), but then did his post-doc in the Neurosciences doing EEG studies. What makes it more interesting to me is that most of his engineering work was done in spacecraft propulsion and plasma physics, giving him a link to aerospace engineering (which is the program of specialization I started doing in Eng. Sci. before transferring into science).

I have talked about the importance of interdisciplinary understanding before, so you might correctly conjecture that it is something I feel is important. Hence I highly enjoyed the second to last section of the opening chapter of his book entitled "Philosophical Conflicts" which discusses some of the unfortunate gaps between scientific disciplines. I hadn't realised how much my scientific philosophy had already been moulded by my courses in mathematics and physics until I realised that many of the statements he was making were voicing in words the vague sense of frustration I have had with so many of my courses in the life sciences. For example, he gives the following ratio:

(Time spent in preparation and performance of an experiment)/(Time spent deciding which experiments are worth doing)

And (correctly, I believe) points out that the ratio is much larger in EEG research (and, I think, many areas of biology in general) than in the physical sciences. Pointing out these differences and helping illuminate the underlying causes is, I believe, an important pursuit. It helps one appreciate where researchers in other fields are coming from, hopefully mollifying tensions and fostering the synergistic exchange of knowledge to the betterment of both parties.

Another enjoyable aspect of this section of his book is that he makes his case for the importance of a strong theoretical understanding by way of looking at the history of aerodynamics and aircraft design. While this made me smile because I could reminisce about wind tunnel experiments and the Navier-Stokes equations, it also included some wonderful lines like "If we were mathematicians, we might first try to obtain solutions to these [Navier-Stokes] equations. However, we are not mathematicians, we are airplane designers."

Also, no discussion of aerodynamics would be complete without the inclusion of Prandtl (a man whose work in fluid mechanics is so seminal that John D. Anderson's text Fundamentals of Aerodynamics includes a section titled "Historical Note: Prandtl - The Man". I'm not sure if Anderson intended it to sound like he was colloquially calling Prandtl "the man" or instead intended simply to intimate that this section would focus on Prandtl as a person rather than his scientific works. While I think the latter is more likely, the former interpretation makes me chuckle, so I prefer it). True to form, Nunez closes this section by discussing how Prandtl managed to unify the more mathematically elegant, though practically useless, body of knowledge on frictionless liquids with the empirical knowledge of hydraulics developed by engineers by his introduction of the concept of a boundary layer, thereby allowing fluid mechanics to achieve far greater success as a field with practical applicability but based more solidly in theory.

Anyway, this post seems to have wandered a bit, so suffice to say that I am a fan of Nunez's writing (and, to be fair, Srinivasan's writing too, though I'm fairly certain this part was written primarily by Nunez). Now I should make myself some lunch and get back to reading.