We’ve all seen the sports highlight reel (e.g the top 10 plays of the day etc). You get to see all the big plays and all the game changing moments. The problem with highlight reels is that you get to see all the spectacular stuff, but miss all the subtle moments, the little things that often make the game changers possible. For the casual sports fan (I suppose like me), the highlights are perfect, but for those deeply immersed in the sport they are a poor substitute for the real thing. This tweet reminded me of a comment I once made about TED Talks, at least as they relate to science. They feel like the highlight reel. Lots of spectacular, often inspirational science but missing much of the essence of science (at least what I consider essence), which is the day to day work that scientists have to do.
Science is fundamentally incremental, setting up the occasional breakthrough that completely changes the field (e.g. PCR). It’s why so many science “moonshots” fail, or at the very least disappoint those looking for the big play. I learnt this back during my masters. I was trying to see if you could use molecular sieves (specifically MCM-41) to build conducting nanoscale wires. Just setting up the experiment took weeks. The hard part was getting just the right conditions under which the MCM-41 would deposit and adhere to a platinum electrode. That’s not magic. It requires a ton of patience, discipline, and occasionally some luck.
There’s nothing wrong with big hairy audacious goals. Risk is a fundamental part of any large undertaking, but too often in our quest for the spectacular we forget that the scientific process is painstaking and methodical. Let’s not do that. It undermines all the hard work that grad students, post-docs, and researchers the world over do day in and day out.