December 24, 2009
December 24, 2009
ASTONISHING discoveries in space, revelations about human nature, frightening news on the environment, medical advances that will banish life-threatening diseases: an inexhaustible stream of wonders runs through the pages of New Scientist. All tell the same tale. Science is exciting. Science is cutting-edge. Science is fun.
It is now time to come clean. This glittering depiction of the quest for knowledge is… well, perhaps not an outright lie, but certainly a highly edited version of the truth. Science is not a whirlwind dance of excitement, illuminated by the brilliant strobe light of insight. It is a long, plodding journey through a dim maze of dead ends. It is painstaking data collection followed by repetitious calculation. It is revision, confusion, frustration, bureaucracy and bad coffee. In a word, science can be boring.
My own brief and undistinguished research career included its share of mind-numbing tasks, notably the months of data processing which revealed that a large and expensive orbiting gamma-ray telescope had fixed its eye on the exploding heart of a distant galaxy and seen… nothing. I tip my hat, though, to New Scientist‘s San Francisco bureau chief, who spent nearly three years watching mice sniff each other in a room dimly lit by a red bulb. “It achieved little,” he confesses, “apart from making my clothes smell of mouse urine.” And the office prize for research ennui has to go to the editor of NewScientist.com. “I once spent four weeks essentially turning one screw backwards and forwards,” he says. “It was about that time that I decided I didn’t want to be a working scientist.”
Yet when it comes to the sober and sobering business of scientific drudgery, the denizens of New Scientist Towers qualify, at best, as mere dabblers. Here we wish to pay tribute to the truly heroic figures: those who have pushed back the boundaries of boredom and against all odds broken through to the sunlit uplands of scientific revelation – or not.
People like the celestial mechanic Urbain Le Verrier. By the mid-19th century, astronomers were aware that the outermost planet then known, Uranus, was travelling in an orbit that couldn’t quite be explained by the influence of the sun and the other planets. The gravity of a new, unseen body was thought to be to blame. But where was it?
Through a feat of mathematical monomania that occupied the best part of a year, Le Verrier worked backwards from the orbital irregularities of Uranus to establish where the hidden planet ought to be found. His prediction, within 1 degree of the true position, allowed the German astronomer Johann Galle to spot the body we now know as Neptune from his observatory in Berlin. The discovery led to instant acclaim for Le Verrier, adding a disappointing lustre to an otherwise satisfyingly dull achievement.
Astronomers in general have a strong claim to be champions of the most popular discipline of scientific tedium: the long stare. Amateur supernova hunters, for example, still eyeball galaxies through their telescopes night after night, comparing what they see with the features recorded on standard charts in the hope that a bright new point of light will suddenly have appeared. While a few among this band are lucky enough to see several supernovae, others may pursue a lifetime of observation without ever witnessing the explosion of a single star.