Friday, February 23, 2024

A Risk of Science


I just finished reading a French novel, Cent millions d’années et un jour, by Jean-Baptiste Andrea. It was not the best novel I have ever read, but I did learn something interesting from it.

I chose the novel because the protagonist was a paleontologist named Stan, which is my name. He got a team of explorers together to go high into the Alps to look for a cave that was reputed to have a huge skeleton, maybe a dinosaur. After long personal struggles and dangers from the weather, the team gradually abandoned Stan, and he was alone when he actually found the cave. Success?

The author apparently did not understand the process of scientific research very well. Stan started his expedition based on a story. An old man a half century earlier had claimed he knew a cave that hid a big skeleton. Stan asked around in the mountain hamlets, and the rumor was confirmed only by a five-year-old girl. To most scientists, this is not an adequate basis for launching an investigation, especially one that involved a lot of time and personal risk. At least one person died by falling into the chasm that the team painstakingly created to get into what they thought was the right cave.

When Stan entered the cave, winter was advancing on him. The old man who claimed to have found a skeleton was not lying, but was mistaken. It was not a skeleton, but a pile of sticks that looked, at a glance, like a dinosaur skeleton.

It was too late for Stan to hike out of the mountains, so he had to survive in his tent all winter. He may or may not have succeeded, I’m not sure, and he was harassed by wolves that may or may not have existed. It’s just like Life of Pi, where there might have been a tiger on the raft, or maybe not.

My simple point is that, what do you do if your discovery turns out to be worthless? A lot of scientific research ends in failure. The thing to do is to get as many facts, not just rumors, as you can before beginning a big research project, and to not make one project your entire life. Stan was a moderately successful paleontologist—he found a trilobite fossil when he was a kid. With the failure of this one project, his career had failed. True scientists, like any other true explorers, do not take such risks.

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