Monday, 22 July 2013

I am slowly doing science (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, drop).

Last week, the pitch dropped. The tar pitch, that is. I won't go into all the details of what happened, but here's a summary: A long time ago some people got in an argument about whether or not tar pitch was an extremely slow moving liquid (as opposed to a solid). To resolve this argument, they stuck some tar pitch in a funnel, which they stuck in a jar which went in another jar which went in a cupboard, and the green grass grew all around. The idea was that if the pitch ever dropped through the funnel, it would be proof that the pitch was liquid. If we reached the end of time and the pitch hadn't dropped, it was probably solid (turns out proving non-existence is tough...).

So last week, after various events had kept such a drop from ever being recorded (they happen once every ten years or so), a pitch drop was caught on video, 70 years after the experiment was started. Yay science!

The reason I bring this up is that there's a message in all of this that hasn't made any of the news reports about the pitch drop: Science sometimes takes time. Science is sometimes boring, and tedious. Science is sometimes boring and tedious even for scientists. If that seems like a strange thing for someone who spends at least some of their time as a science communicator, well it is. But it's also an important one.

First off, sometimes is a key word here. Science can be, and often is, exciting. It can blow your mind and change your view of the world in an instant. It can be indescribably cool. And sharing those cool, mind-blowing moments is an important part of inspiring both future scientists and the public at large to learn more about the world around them and what humanity can do with it.

But if that's all we ever focus on, we risk sending the message that doing science is about having a big idea, which is so obviously right that everyone goes, "Wow! You're obviously right," and sees the world in a new way. These moments, though, are few and far between. Far more often, someone proposes an idea that is partially right, and it gets bounced around, and revised, and extended. And, in the most crucial step, it gets tested by experiments. Experiments that can take time, experiments whose results are inconclusive or difficult to interpret, experiments that lead to more questions than answers.

The development of silicon computer chips is a good example of this. Electronic band structure theory, the ideas that eventually allowed people to understand the electronic structure of silicon, started development in the early 1930's. Experimentally testing this, though, was a problem; experiments in silicon contradicted each other, and were generally inconclusive. The problem, it later turned out, is that silicon is both exquisitely sensitive to the presence of impurities (which is why it's so useful) and extremely difficult to purify. It took a decades-long effort of progressively refining the techniques to manufacture pure silicon before its properties could actually be probed. This went hand in hand with refinement of bandstructure theory. Eventually, the structure was known well enough that the first solid-state transistor could be created, which would lead to the computer revolution--decades later.

Even after the silicon transistor was created in 1954, it took scientists and engineers years to get to the desktop computer and the internet. And much of the development was incremental, rather than in revolutionary flashes of insight. Each generation of hardware allowed engineers to refine techniques and build a better set, which is why the cpu in this computer consists of transistors largely in the same design as the 1954 original, except millions of times smaller and faster.

Ignoring this type of incremental (but no less world-changing) science leads to the type of big-idea, insight driven reporting so brilliantly excoriated in this extended piece by Boris Kachka in New York Magazine, written in the wake of the Jonah Lehrer scandal. It leads to doubt when climate change science isn't as clear-cut and straightforward as people have come to expect real science to be. And it leads to young potential scientists doubting their ability to be scientists when their ideas aren't right, or are incomplete.

So let's keep telling the mind-blowing stories. But let's also remember to occasionally tell the stories of ideas that weren't quite right, experiments that were confusing, and pitch that took a decade to drop.

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