Thursday, July 23, 2009

Amateur Science

On my way to work today, I heard a story on NPR about an amateur Australian astronomer Anthony Wesley, who discovered a big crater (the size of earth) near Jupiter's south pole. As soon as I sat in front of my computer, I googled and found almost 600 news articles, and here is a link to one of those stories.

Post World War II, science has gotten bigger, and more expensive. To merely keep up with literature, "to stand on the shoulders of giants", requires exorbitant journal subscriptions, which are beyond the reach of individuals. Some of those things are changing, there is arxiv, and of course, the web is an amazing democratizing force.

To see someone with passion and a telescope discovering something that the biggies missed is real chicken-soup for the soul.

It reminded me of the afternoons as a kid, when my cousins and I tried to mix random stuff in water (soil, talcum powder, herbs etc.) to try and create an invisibility potion. The approach was what modern science would call "Edisonian", which meant "keep trying".

Thank god, we never tried to drink that crap, otherwise we would be invisible for good!

But yeah, the astronomer story moved something in me that hadn't moved in some time. It reminded me why I write grants, papers, and put up with pointless meetings.

Its because the joy of discovery, however small, is still so thrilling. You spend the vast majority of your time connecting dots, and most of the time that produces nothing. Occasionally, you get lucky and something starts emerging. The time interval, between that realization that something is emerging, to the instant when the last dot is connected makes one sing: "I am dancing at the feet of God, all is bliss, all is bliss!"


Guru said...

Nice article....:).
The things invented will always make one pride, no matter how small it is.

Ash said...

I think it's often ordinary people, with an untrained eye or with passion for experimentation, who end up with great discoveries/ inventions and become "great". Sometimes too much of information leads to a constricted vision, which causes "experts" to miss out on obvious things.
Your article reiterates the hope that common man is also capable of producing great work.
good read!

Sachin Shanbhag said...

Thanks Guru and Ashwini.

@Ash: I completely agree that looking at an old problem with an untrained/semi-trained eye can offer refreshing insights. Conventional thinking very quickly gets ingrained into ones DNA, which is great for incremental work, but for truly transformative work, less is more!