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Science as play
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Science as play
Teasing out a solution
Pretend games
Why would science need play?
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The playful element in science, a given for many of its practitioners, is too seldom studied by psychologists, sociologists, historians and philosophers. This paper, by considering topics such as: the importance of play in the making of a scientist; experiments and modeling as play; or yet the referee report as cat-and-mouse play, will attempt (without undue seriousness) to identify a number of real issues regarding various narratives of science, the interplay between the personal and the social dimensions of play in particular.


When I received the invitation to lecture in this prestigious series, I had just finished writing a little essay on molecular models, drawing attention to their ludic dimension.   Hence, my choice of "Science as play" for the topic of this talk. The existence of such a hidden dimension was reason enough to bring it out in the open.

The importance of this undercurrent to scientific activity may be commensurate with its careful obliteration from mention or public debate. Scientists tend to hide it, not so much from one another but from the public. There are at least three reasons. Scientific workers want to continue being taken seriously. To imply the presence of an element of play in their activity might subvert their public image. Secondly, the ethics of a scientist include a puritanical component. And, thirdly, public support of science by the taxpayers is hard to reconcile with subsidizing adults fancying themselves as a bunch of kids and, seemingly, squandering hefty amounts of money.

It is an elusive and difficult topic because it lacks adequate documentation. The published record tends to censor out such aspects, for the reasons just mentioned. Publications of scientists follow molds which exclude mention of whimsey. Publications by philosophers and by historians tend to overplay the seriousness of science, to the detriment of the playful aspects. To look into these may thus appear counterintuitive.

I chose to address this topic nevetheless because I know how fundamental it is from experience as a practicing scientist, both my own and through the testimony of many colleagues. In the format of this single lecture, I will barely chart little explored territory. I shall merely indicate some of the most promising directions for future study.

First, I shall point to the presence of a playful mood or approach to problem-solving. I shall then attempt a portrait of the scientist as tinkerer. Pretend games will be the third manifestation of playful science I shall consider. I will close with a conjecture on such scientific playfulness stemming from language game and rhetorics.

In so doing, I wish to avoid a trap. The extreme thesis "science identifies with play" is untenable. Science holds the balance between the apollinian and the dyonysian, and to focus on the latter mode exclusively is misleading. I shall thus content myself with the more modest assertion "science has an element of play." And I wish to err on the side of conservative caution regarding the extension of the scientific playground. Also, I shall strive to separate the logical from the more intuitive parts in my argument. I apologize in advance for not even attempting to be comprehensive. I shall talk to only a few selected parts, they reflect my taste only, on this vast topic: science as play.