Another Difference Between Real Scientists and Science Fiction Scientists

I was watching an episode of Fringe today and got to see Walter Bishop actually puttering around his lab and whipping up antidotes with seconds to spare.  If only science were so exciting on a daily basis, I bet it’d be easier to inspire people to study it more.

But it usually isn’t.

What I got to do today was work on a proposal to use one of the Gemini telescopes to try to improve our measurements of the masses of the black holes that power quasars in the centers of distant galaxies.  I need about 12 hours of time next fall to do my project, and I spent more than 12 hours writing the brief proposal.  I submitted it to my collaborators for feedback, revised it accordingly, checked all the minute details, edited it down to satisfy the page limits.

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This is how a lot of scientists spend their time.  Writing proposals to use facilities, to get grant money, writing emails with advice to help their friends do the same.

Pretty much every successful scientist is a writer and editor, agonizing over whether to be colloquial (“well correlated”) or formal (“significantly correlated”) or superformal (“significantly correlated at the 3 sigma level”).  Then going with “well correlated” because it saves a line.

And we get asked to sit on review panels to read a stack of these documents, missing the details the proposers agonized over, giving each a few minutes of discussion before voting and ranking them.

It’s a lot of hard, detailed work just to get the opportunity to do an interesting project sometimes.

Meanwhile on TV Walter Bishop gets to do things all the time and folks fetch him what he needs (or often even demands).

To be fair, I guess a lot of fiction is like this.  You summarize the tedious in a paragraph, or a sentence, and move on to the interesting bit, whether it’s scientists, firefighters, cops, whoever.  Minute-to-minute, life for few people is constantly interesting.  I’ve known this a long time and it’s one reason I never applied to be an astronaut (AKA “Mission Specialist” like one of my old professors).  A lot of repetitive drilling, not a lot of action.

I’ll move on to something else tomorrow and forget about the hours spent on the proposal.  They’re nothing compared to the months I’ll wait to get an answer to my request.  I guess if I really wanted some excitement I could push the deadline, work to the last minute (the deadline is 11:59pm, of all things), and submit my proposal with only seconds to spare…

Naw.  I think I like having it done a few hours early just fine.

I’ll live the excitement vicariously through Walter Bishop, which is one point of consuming stories, and wait patiently for my telescope time.  I won’t save a life, but I will get a thrill if I can get a better black hole mass prescription for quasars.

That’s fun, too, even if the groundwork isn’t so exciting, and a successful scientist likes it well enough.

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1 Comment

  1. I love it! I completely feel your pain. I work in law enforcement and it's nothing like the docudramas where crimes are committed, solved, prosecuted and convicted all in one hour. Real life is far more filled with boring the science fiction is. I suppose it's the old six-hundred shooters of cowboy movies- exxagerated beyond belief for entertainment.

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