Let’s face it, writes Stephen Battersby at the New Scientist, science is boring. Discoveries of new planets, medical advances and potential environmental disasters leave the impression that science is exciting and cutting edge. Not so.
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.
Science may be boring, but Batterby’s essay is a hoot. Especially his description of his own inglorious research career, which involved months of sifting data from a telescope and finding…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.”
Let’s keep this to ourselves and not mention it to the children, shall we? After all, our economy and national security are at stake.
Update: Not bored yet? Joanne Jacobs asks “Do children need to be bored?” Insightful Willingham response in the comments.