Small Science
August 8, 2015 6:41 AM   Subscribe

Not all science is about going to Pluto, curing cancer, or ripping apart the fabric of the universe. Chris Buddle gives an object lesson in curiosity, passion and science for its own sake.

"I’m pleased to announce a publication about the natural history of a tiny, wonderful arachnid: the pseudoscorpion Wyochernes asiaticus. I’ve published quite a few papers, but this one [free reg req'd to download] is really special: it’s special because it’s about an obscure creature for which virtually nothing was known. It’s about a species with a fascinating distribution. To me, it’s an epic tale about a species that nobody really cares that much about. It’s special because it is research that was done just out of pure curiosity and fascination: there was no larger purpose, no great problem to solve, and no experiments to run. It was based on observation and observation alone, and it was a long slog – done over many, many years (it took about 7-8 years to pull together this story, and this story is really only a prologue). Fundamentally this research was about trying to gather some base-line data about a small animal living in a big landscape."

Pseudoscorpions psreviously.
posted by Devonian (8 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I love how quiet and understated this article is. The tone helps to make the point.

This approach—studying nature out of sheer curiosity; studying nature because doing so rewards you with countless marvels large and small; doing it out of the natural human instinct to see what's around the next bend, on the other side of the river, or (in this case literally) under each rock—is how science began in the first place. Of course we should keep that spirit.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 6:53 AM on August 8, 2015

Although there's one point the author doesn't make:

Basic research is anything but. The individual atoms of data that are gathered through basic research rarely lead to anything earth-shattering. But, over time, they paint a picture that helps us understand the natural world as a whole better—like a huge image being drawn one pixel at a time, until we can discern the larger phenomena of which each pixel is a concrete manifestation.

(And sometimes the individual atoms do turn out to be consequential.)

This is what the "LOL why is the gubmint funding studies on the mating habits of fruit flies" people are missing—real science isn't like Hollywood, where one experiment upends everything we thought we knew about the universe. Nature does not give up her most precious secrets easily; it takes a lot of hard and sometimes tedious work by a lot of people, who might then take decades to find a consensus on how to interpret the data. Sometimes we need to map out the territory just to figure out where the most interesting and promising questions are.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 7:12 AM on August 8, 2015 [6 favorites]

I would hope very little science is about ripping up the fabric of the universe.

Besides we know the universe is made of a cow. A spherical cow of uniform density in a vacuum.

Actually, it's Lego.

Lego turtles.

But yes, science goes on, big and small. The last emperor of Japan, in addition to being the Emperor of Japan during WWII, possible war criminal, leader during the Japan Economic Miracle, father of the current Emperor, etc, etc, was also...a marine biologist. He didn't make huge contributions. He studied Hydroza in Tokyo Bay, finding several dozen species new to science, documenting them and publishing them under his birth name. Should you come across a reference to "Hirohito" in marine biology in the late 1980s or early 1990s, it's very likely that yes, it's *that* guy, then the Tennõ Heika, now Shõwa Tennõ, but in the literature, simply Hirohito.

Important? Yes, of course. All science is important. That work extends the body of knowledge of that realm. That's work that can be extended (and has been) by others. That established that those species *did* live in Tokyo Bay at that time, if they were found to be missing, that's a change that has occurred, finding out why could be very important.

But earthshaking? Nah. It's right up there with the FPP work. It's documenting a few small creatures. It's a little thing, but little science can become big science, and this was done by an old man in a a few small rooms in a dusty palace in Tokyo. It was noted that it was done very thoroughly for someone so new to the discipline, and that he'd found quite a few new ones -- and a couple of ones that we'd in fact already known about, but documented them much better, one so much better that he was granted codiscovery status.

Pluto itself was discovered by a man taking pictures of the stars, night after night, then taking pictures of those same stars a few nights later, then looking at the those two pictures to see if anything changed. It wasn't considered big science at the time.

I think we consider it pretty important now.

Little work is work.

A lot of little work builds very big things.
posted by eriko at 7:14 AM on August 8, 2015 [6 favorites]

I don't have the time to read or watch TV like I used to, one of the things I miss is reading about interesting discoveries or topics outside of engineering or child rearing. :-) But a year or so ago I added Radiolab to the list of podcast I listen to while driving or traveling. Some of the recent ones include the discovery of CRISPR, a cheap and fast technique for editing DNA derived from a fascinating discovery in common bacteria or Shrink, about the discovery of a new class of viruses that may change our basic thoughts on cellular vs viral life.

It doesn't replace watching NOVA, but it did reawaken that joy I felt learning something completely new about the world.
posted by beowulf573 at 7:51 AM on August 8, 2015

Pseudoscorpions would be a pretty good name for a tribute band.
posted by Wolfdog at 8:23 AM on August 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

There are also Lego Logo turtles...

I adore this level of science, for all the reasons above and because to spend one's life learning about your fascination is so satisfying. What makes one thing more fascinating than the other, I don't know - when I was young, i was lucky enough to live in a place and among people who encouraged my various juvenile passions - astronomy, geology, marine biology, chemistry - but the one that stuck hard was radio, which doesn't lend itself to amateur science particularly well. (There is stuff you can do, but it's all either pretty well mapped or part of the quantum crazyworld.) Which is not to say I don't have Hirohito-esque fantasies of spending many years sifting through esturine mud looking for new animalcules, and who knows, but I think that part of me would have been better expressed as an 18th century country parson.

I recognise the same commitment to enthusiasm in lots of other areas - fandom, say, or religion - but for me the urge to know something for the first time in our history, to create more knowledge, to add even one tiny dot to our picture of nature, is just so much more compelling.
posted by Devonian at 8:45 AM on August 8, 2015

Now let me tell you about what people in the humanities do...
posted by Pyrogenesis at 11:02 AM on August 8, 2015

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