Friday, December 18, 2009


The old pulp versions of scientists - the lone self-funded genius, with or without a daughter and her usefully heroic boyfriend, or the muscular university academic as adept at fighting administrators as villains chasing the unobtanium only he can find, or the geek working in undisturbed obscurity in some academic institution who stumbles on some Big Secret - no longer cut the mustard, realitywise. Now that most of science’s low-hanging fruit has been picked, few important questions still unsolved can't be cracked unless you deploy teams of scientists using extremely expensive toys. Big problems require big science, underwritten by one or more governments: the Hadron collider, the Hubble telescope, the Cassini probe, the ranks of automated sequencers used to decode the human genome. And the huge budgets and complex equipment deployed by big science require teams of administrators, technicians, engineers and computer programmers as well as cadres of scientists. Published papers are no longer the work of one or two authors, but of twenty, or a hundred, or five hundred (the current record holder appears to be a physics paper with 2512 authors*).

So real stories about current science might best be framed as soap-operatic epics about political wrangling between the principle investigators, intrigues and jealousies amongst their minions, and desperate races between rival teams to be first to acquire and publish important results that crucially illuminates an important problem. Or, since big, government-funded civilian science is shadowed by government-funded military research and science funded by big business, the kind of research that flourishes outside the public gaze, you could write truly baroque contemporary Cold-War-style espionage thrillers about dark- or stealth-net science that’s gone way over the edge of rationality. Or, pushing current trends just a little, how about underworld science (Afghani druglords diversifying into biotech), or open-source science (citizen scientists getting hold of powerful and easy to use technologies based on the BioBricks principle), or virtual science (using computer modelling and virtual worlds to uncover truths through heuristic best-fit guesses rather than experimental testing)?

And then there’s the dystopian zero of anti-science science, in which the deniers, anti-Darwinists, flat-Earthers and their allies and camp followers have triumphed, shut down the laboratories and universities, and rolled back history to a point way before the Age of Enlightenment . . .

*Aleph et al. 2006. Precision electroweak measurements on the Z resonance. Physics Reports, 427[5-6]: 257-454.


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