The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, October 23, 2009

A nice comment on last week's social Session

I've added two clarifications in square brackets and stuck in HTML links.

Scotland on Sunday Review, 18.10.09, p. 10

'The Browser' - Stuart Kelly

'C P Snow famously derided the "two cultures" mind-set that separates arts and sciences as two distinct and discreet spheres of activity, and though much has been done to dissolve this distinction, the chasm still remains. one of the most innovative attepts to bridge the divide has been the Writer in Residence scheme for the Edinburgh Genomics Forum, currently held by Ken MacLeod [and Pippa Goldschmidt - KMM]. Last Wednesday, they held a fascinating debate on the depiction of scientists in fiction, with speculative fiction writer Andrew J Wilson giving a whistle-stop tour of the various swivel-eyed, shock-haired, demented geniuses from Victor Frankenstein onwards. He was accompanied by three practicing scientists, Emma Frow, Steve Yearley and Chris French, who all spoke eloquently on the stereotypes of boffins (Dungeons and Dragons was mentioned, as well as the persistence of the "Eureka!" idea - most science is, unfortunately, pure slog). Afterwards, I was lucky enough to get a copy of this year's best contribution to the idea of Homecoming - a gorgeous pamphlet called "Alba Ad Astra", produced by the Writers' Bloc Group [and available from the Forum's other partner for the event, Transreal Fiction, who had kindly provided a bookstall - KMM], which details Scotland's forgotten (and fictitious) space programme."

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'...the persistence of the "Eureka!" idea - most science is, unfortunately, pure slog'.

Eurekas still happen, e.g. the Polymerase Chain Reaction: 'The history of the Polymerase Chain Reaction (or PCR) has variously been described as a classic "Eureka!" moment[1], or as an example of cooperative teamwork between disparate researchers[2]'.

The latter suggestion is a complete red herring. Although it needed a lot of prior work of the hard slog/standing on the shoulders of giants variety, which shouldn't be discounted, it still needed that Eureka. No Eureka, no discovery; even if someone else had pulled it together that would also have been a Eureka - because the prior work was done for other reasons and not towards that goal, so there was no knowledge of the possibility ahead. Once the goal was spotted, it was both inherently a surprise and almost the same as actually attaining it (unlike, say, steady R & D towards magnetically contained fusion). Which is what a Eureka is.

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