Hands up who thinks of scientists as people in white lab coats who spend their days mixing coloured liquids in test tubes. This view is inaccurate, of course. In reality, every scientist works differently, and each has their own unique take on what it means to be a scientist. The area of science you work in can also have a big effect on how you do science. Here, Dr Willem de Lange gives a personal insight into the world of a scientist who studies ocean waves.

What does it mean to ‘do science’?

For Willem, scientists observe what’s happening and then try to explain it. He sees hypotheses as explanations for what might be going on. It’s like crime-solving, he says – looking at the evidence and coming up with the most plausible explanation for it. Then, having come up with an explanation, scientists have to work out how to test it.

Testing a hypothesis means making a prediction. As Willem puts it, you have to think, “OK, this is what happened so far… in the future, I expect this is what’s going to happen.” Of course, predictions aren’t always right – but that’s the nature of science! Willem says, “I can look at the pattern observed and say, based on the available evidence, I’m forecasting that, this summer, we are going to have at least two tropical cyclones affecting New Zealand. Now if this happens, then I can be more confident that my interpretation of the evidence is valid.”

The hypothesis is only valid until you get your first piece of evidence that contradicts it.

Being a scientist: scepticism required!

A key part of Willem’s view of science is that scientists have always got to be sceptical about their explanations and keep testing them: “This is the most plausible explanation we’ve got at the moment, but is there something else?” He says, “The hypothesis is only valid until you get your first piece of evidence that contradicts it.” Importantly, having consensus of the scientific community alone is not enough to prove the correctness of a hypothesis – it’s possible that everyone is on the wrong track!

Dealing with the ‘real world’

Scientists also have to deal with the real world where the phenomena that they study take place. In wave research, for instance, researchers are constrained as to where they can put instruments to collect data. Willem says, “I can’t take a map and throw a dart at it and say ‘I’ll put an instrument there.’ It doesn’t work [like that].”

The scientist needs to make sure that their measuring instruments don’t interfere with fishing or port activities and aren’t a hazard to boaties. Some instruments must be put on rocks and some instruments can’t be put on mud. These and many other considerations limit the type of data that can be collected and introduce inherent bias.

Collaborating with other scientists

Far from working away at an experiment alone, scientists often collaborate with one another. More and more, collaboration is becoming an important feature of how science is done. Willem has worked at various times with people in NIWA and GNS and at other universities. In particular, he has a major collaboration with Bremen University in Germany. Interaction with other scientists at conferences is also an important part of being a scientist.

Willem says that the mode of scientific interaction is quite different now that Skype and other conferencing tools are widely used. This enables researchers to collaborate without having to travel. This makes a big difference to Willem, who is a member of a number of national and international organisations and committees: the Coastal Marine Group, Oceanographic Society, American Geophysical Union, Coastal Education Research Foundation, Tsunami Expert Panel and others.

Nature of science

Scientists who study natural processes (such as wave formation) have to plan their experiments very carefully. They have to ensure their study doesn’t interfere with other activities, and the way they collect data can be affected by these considerations.

    Published 2 May 2011