23 février 2017: Prof. Stuart Firestein

Jeudi 23 février 2017
12h30, CMU - C150
Prof. Stuart FIRESTEIN
Department of Biological Sciences
Columbia University University, New York


« Ignorance, Failure and the Scientific Method:
a Case Study from Research in the Mammalian Olfactory System

The non specialist public generally believes that Science is governed by the Scientific Method and that it is an activity whose purpose is to generate Facts and truth (often with a capital T) about our universe; that it makes statements about the world that remain unchanged and certain.  This is true even of university students and even of science majors in universities.  It is not until graduate school that the working scientist learns that science is messy, not methodical, that questions are more important than answers and that failure is imbedded in the process.  Words like ignorance, failure, uncertainty and doubt, while generally negative in popular parlance, are the very characteristics that make science so reliable and so successful.  After convincing you of these "alternate truths", I will present some recent research and data in the olfactory system that may be seen as a case history of how evidence changes and how revision is a victory in science.  It will also demonstrate that, in spite of this revisionistic process, unsettled science is not unsound science.


The two pillars of science are ignorance and failure. And the values of science are not fact, surety and conviction, but ignorance, doubt and uncertainty. Yet uncertainty is not unreliability, and unsettled science is not unsound science”. Stuart Firestein

Host: Prof. Pedro HERRERA
Département de médecine génétique et développement, Faculté de Médecine, UNIGE


Biographical Sketch

Dr. Stuart Firestein is the former Chair of Columbia University's Department of Biological Sciences where his colleagues and he study the vertebrate olfactory system, possibly the best chemical detector on the face of the planet.  He performed his graduate studies at UC Berkeley in Neuroscience and was a Post Doctoral Fellow at Yale University where he became an Assistant Professor in 1992.  Moving to Columbia in 1993 he established his laboratory devoted to understanding olfaction as a model system for brain studies.  His laboratory published the first experimental evidence demonstrating that the recently cloned family of receptors expressed in olfactory sensory neurons were indeed odor receptors.  He has published over 100 papers in scientific journals, including several highly cited reviews. His laboratory seeks to answer that fundamental human question: How do I smell? 

Dedicated to promoting the accessibility of science to a public audience Firestein serves as an advisor for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s program for the Public Understanding of Science.  He is on the SAB of the popular science magazine  Nautilus, and on the Board of directors of the Imagine Science Film Festival.  Recently he was awarded the 2011 Lenfest Distinguished Columbia Faculty Award for excellence in scholarship and teaching.  He is a Fellow of the AAAS, an Alfred Sloan Fellow and a Guggenheim Fellow.  At Columbia he is on the Advisory boards of the Center for Science and Society (CSS) and the Presidential Scholars in Society and Neuroscience –both centers for interdisciplinary work between the sciences and the humanities. He is the author of two books on the workings of science for a general audience: Ignorance, How it drives Science (OUP, 2012) and Failure: Why Science is So Successful, (2015).  They have been translated into 10 languages.