Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Where is the joy in research?

Dennis Overbye has a rather odd essay in the NYT: "The Joy of Physics Isn’t in the Results, but in the Search Itself ." It starts off reading as a conventional justification for pure research based on the unanticipated but fundamentally useful technological products it produces, products that applied scientific or technological research would not have produced. You know the things: hypertext and the WWW, digital camera sensors, MRI and PET scanners, Velcro, pens that write when upside down, memory foam beds.

But then it veers off to tackle, as far as I can tell, the slow and bumpy road along the path of scientific progress from Overbye's perspective as a science writer in 2009. The pre-servicing mission Hubble contrasted with post servicing mission glory, the Large Hadron Collider's commissioning woes, and the pre-announcement hype of CDMS-2's decidedly ambiguous one (or two, if you're generous) sigma pseudo result. This is more in line with the essay's title.

I presume that Overbye's point was to highlight that the scientific method is not all about predictable results that appear in a regular and preplanned way. That both the results and process of science are unpredictable, and that's where the "joy" of it lies.

Its all very well, admirable even, for a science writer to tackle societies naive and preconceived views of how science works, but I must say I think Overbye's essay veers to much in the opposite direction to ignore the many years of routine operation by telescopes (the result of careful planning and hard work) and particle colliders, where experiments are planned and go roughly as expected. Unanticipated surprises happen, but the surprise us because they're rare and contrast so vividly with the larger edifice of scientific progress built slow accumulation and refinement.

Returning to the title of Overbye essay, I'd agree that doing science is fun. Seeing or discovering things that no-one else has ever seen or thought is a thrill. The mental challenge itself is pleasurable, even when you're treading scientific ground where others have gone before. But getting a result - answering a question - even if it isn't the answer you expected, is the payoff and culmination of all the hard work. So some of the joy of physics is certainly in the search, but a lot of it is in getting results.

Post a Comment