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Science v/s Superstition : A tug of war for the Scientists

According to a probably apocryphal story about the famous physicist Niels Bohr, a visitor was once astonished to see a horseshoe hanging on the wall of his home. “Surely you can’t believe in that sort of superstitious nonsense,” said the guest.

“Of course I don’t believe in it,” replied Bohr. “But I understand that it works whether you believe it or not.” As strange as this story sounds, superstitions in the lab are quite common too. And even more incredibly, they might work. Kind of sometimes.

Throwing NaCl Over Your Shoulder or Sugar with Curd before exams

Not too much of a surprise that scientists can be victims of superstition like the rest of us. At the end, they are also humans. Like, for example, Pierre and Marie Curie were somewhat taken with mediums who claimed to have contacted the Afterlife, or that Jack Parsons, a founding member of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, was also heavily involved in both the occult practices of Aleister Crowley and the early days of Scientology.

Of course, what’s even more common are the superstitions and rituals the scientists work out is what gives them inner peace and thus boosts to their work. A 2017 article in Nature got scientists from all different disciplines to admit the sometimes bizarre rituals they rely on to get their desired results. Okay, thats too scientific periodical to follow. Simply proceed to daily news like Washington Post, NewYork Times or Times of India, be it NASA or ISRO, both have a prayer a day before that their project succeeds. Afterall, it’s their brain child brought up and every parent prays to god for success of their children. But then the activity proceeds to different superstitions based on personal and familial beliefs and often maybe rooted to place they belonged to.

portrait of female chemical engineer in laboratory
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Taking for an example, “Rock Ness,” a Loch Ness Monster–shaped stone that brings luck to archaeologists at Oregon State University. Some of the documentaries featuring ornithologist Walt Koenig showed that, he thanks the acorn woodpeckers, that he studies in the wild by kissing them on the forehead and telling them “Live long and prosper.” (It’s even better if you know that he shares a name with the actor who played Ensign Chekov on “Star Trek.”) Some rituals do take on a more serious note, too — like in Japan, universities often hold annual memorial services to pay their respects to the animals who died as a result of their experiments. Well thats soul touching!

We understand that humans naturally gravitate toward rituals like these, whether they’re scientifically minded or not. But when you ask some of the well renowned psychologists, they say that it does act as confidence booster and at the same time helps them focus on their work. But what really blew our minds is the fact that there might actually be something to the superstition.

Kind of Real Effect (Maybe All in Your Head)

According to a study put together by Allison Wood Brooks and Juliana Schroeder, rituals can play a very important role in how the human brain deals with stress. They designed a series of anxiety-inducing tasks, including singing “Don’t Stop Believin'” in front of their peers and completing a difficult math test. They also made up a series of random actions that they characterized as a ritual: participants had to draw a picture of how they were feeling, sprinkle salt on the drawing, crumple up the paper, and throw it in the trash. Some participants were made to perform their stressful tasks without completing the ritual first, others were asked to complete the ritual for good luck, and others were asked to perform the exact same ritual but were explicitly told that it was a meaningless series of random instructions.

woman in blue tank top smiling
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What they found in the study was that the people who performed the ritual as a ritual (and not just as random instructions on paper) showed the least signs of physiological stress. When they had to sing, they sang better, they had lower heart rates, and they reported feeling less anxiety and more peaceful. For the math test, they still reported roughly the same level of anxiety (we all know why, lmao!) — but their performance was still improved and their heart rate showed a feeling of an ease.

So maybe that explains it. Science is sometimes a bit stressful thing to practice, and a little ritual can be the difference between gamely soldiering through a failed experiment and breaking all your pipettes in a fit of frustration. Unless you need to do that for good luck, that is. At the same instance, maybe smart hardwork on the job do fetch better results than one done without.

P.S: I do love black cats, so let’s get away from bad thoughts about them.

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