Monday, 22 July 2013

The race is not to the swift

Round about Xmas 2011, I got an unsolicited mail from Nature - the premier European science journal.  If you publish in Nature, as Irish evolutionary geneticists Ken Wolfe, Aoife McLysaght and Karsten Hokamp did to deliver the Human Genome Sequence in 2001, you have arrived.  Even if you share your epic paper with 252 other authors (yes, I counted: must_have_data).  For a micro-second I imagined that they wanted me to write up my discovery of (well, strictly speaking my unconfirmed prediction of) a novel human gene on chromosome 19.  But they were actually making me a rather good offer: for £50 they would ship me a copy of Nature every week for a year.  It took a while to get the subscription delivered to the correct address (one of their keypunchers had riffle-shuffled my home and work address into a postal conundrum) but I got to look forward to its arrival every week.  And as I was working part-time through 2012, I got to read it, and then pass it on to a palomino who is/was a retired hydro-geologist.  Excellent value.

Then I got the job at The Institute in January and I didn't have time to read my pay-slip let alone a fascinating gallimaufry of science and commentary.  Nature tried to persuade me to continue my sub for €138 pa but I despise bait-and-switch marketing and won't accede to it on principle  . . . and I knew I'd not have time to read it.  Nevertheless the issues came in for another couple of months and I sat down today to open them up and read through the backlog from what was going down in science in the early Spring.

So I've just read a nice feature in the 21Mar13 issue by Brian Owens, a freelance writer from Canada, called Slow Science.  Owens extols the value of gathering data over a very long time.  So much of science, as so much of everything nowadays, is conceived, executed, analysed and written up (or tweeted) in an eye-blink. Funders want their reports back before the next general election at latest. So it takes bottle to carry on plotting data year after year, knowing it won't be analysable, let alone meaningful, for a generation. One of the cases cited by Owens has been running for 85 years in a cupboard at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. The researchers there have been monitoring the viscosity of pitch by watching for ing the drops to fall from a funnel full of the black near-solid goo.  Since 1928 they have accumulated just 8 data-points.  Well just last week, this Slow Science hotted up when a parallel experiment, set up in the TCD School of Physics in 1944, recorded on video the fall of a n o t h e r  S L O W d a t a  p o i n t.  It was big news in Trinity College and it too was written up in Nature.  Props for Irish science, cue Amhrán na bhFiann.

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