Sunday, April 07, 2013

Science is Hard.

Science is Hard.

Digging out the stuck vehicle, Wasatch Mts, Utah.

Science is hard. There's no way around it. If you want to find out how the world works, you gotta go and look. And sometimes that means getting in a car or truck and driving out into the middle of nowhere, or spending hours in a lab with carefully crafted experiments. Spring is finally on its way here in my neck of the woods. For a geologist, this often means field work is just around the corner. And no matter how carefully you plan, venturing into the unknown means you get to deal with unknown outcomes.

If you're lucky, the problems are minor and may only cost you a few hours of your time. Having done my share of field work, I always factor in for the possibility of setbacks. By default, for every week in the field, I set aside an extra day to account for weather, equipment, and vehicle problems. If I'm lucky, I get to use that day to gather extra data.

Vehicles are particularly troublesome. They break down, get stuck, or run out of gas at the worst possible times. I went through two sets of rear brake pads, six oil changes with my first car while working on my dissertation. On one of the last days to head into the field and get some site photos, the timing chain broke - so in a way, my dissertation killed my car.

All of this data that we drag out of the field (sometimes on the back of a tow truck) gets sifted and sorted, processed, analyzed and summarized. Then we fit those observations into an interpretive framework that is often built from the contributions of many other scientists - scientists who have dragged their own data out of the field via similar paths.

This interpretive framework is what bridges the gaps of ignorance - these bridges are continuously maintained, repainted, and rebuilt. But without the hard, grungy fieldwork there would be nothing to support these bridges. So the next time you're at the museum, or you read about new ideas that shape how we view our world, remember - these bridges weren't cut from whole cloth. They were pieced together using the dirtiest, ugliest, hardest-to-obtain data out there. Science is hard. But it beats ignorance.

(This may or may not have been inspired by my wife's recent adventures while out collecting data.)

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