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Headshot of Emily Lakdawalla

Curiosity news that's not news (or maybe it is), and some thoughts on art and science

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla

20-11-2012 12:24 CST

Topics: personal stories, Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory)

This morning while driving to work I heard a terrific story about Curiosity on National Public Radio from Joe Palca, NPR's science correspondent. It was a great story despite the fact that it contained virtually no news. The nugget of non-news is that SAM's analysis of Mars soil has yielded some unspecified, exciting, but not-yet-confirmed result. But that's not really what Palca's story is about; it's instead about the conflict between excitement and caution that every scientist feels when they have discovered something new and cool. Go read or listen to the story: "Big News From Mars? Rover Scientists Mum For Now".

At the end of the segment, Palca talked to Richard Zare, one of the scientists involved in the announcement of the discovery of organic compounds in Martian meteorite ALH84001. Zare drew an analogy between science and art that I found amusing. Here's what Palca and Zare said:

Zare says in a way, scientists are like artists. Sharing what they do is a big part of why they get out of bed in the morning.

"How many composers would actually compose music if they were told no one else could listen to their compositions? How many painters would make a painting if they were told no one else could see them?" says Zare. It's the same for scientists.

I often compare science to art. But I mean almost exactly the opposite of what Zare means. I have said that scientists are like artists because they are driven by obsession rather than approval. Scientists don't get into science because they think they'll make a good living; they do it because they're driven to it, they can't stop asking questions, once a puzzle grabs them, they have to pursue it because their curiosity will kill them otherwise, just as an artist is driven to create, to make, to sculpt, to paint, in an obsession that operates whether anybody ever sees your creations or not.

For a scientist, seeking those answers has to be its own reward, because most scientists do not get paid big bucks to do it, and for all your slaving on a paper there might be a dozen people in the world who will care about the same problems deeply enough to read your precious work end-to-end. It's a kind of egotism that allows you to assert that what you're doing is important, even if virtually no one else recognizes it, much as artists often assert that their work is important even if most people don't like it.

Clearly Zare is thinking of certain kinds of performance artists, whereas I am thinking of certain other visual artists, but in truth we're both right and we're both wrong and we're both oversimplifying, because both scientists and artists are people and people are complicated and diverse.

What our seemingly opposing analogies have in common is the notion that science and art can be compared. That works because science is actually a creative activity. The notion of "creative science" sounds oxymoronic: scientists don't create anything, they're trying to understand something that already is, right?

But the act of understanding is a form of storytelling, of creating a story that fits a sparse set of facts. To come to a new understanding of something, you have to imagine something that nobody else ever imagined before. And to develop a new understanding that contradicts what we have previously held to be true requires a special kind of creativity, the ability to ask and follow "what if?" questions to possible realities we've never imagined.

Ask a scientist what they do when they have free time. (Not just any scientist: don't ask that question of anybody who is on the tenure track or who subsists on soft money or who has any children under the age of 5 unless you want them to laugh in your face or wring your neck.) You'll find that a great many of them make things or perform things with nearly the same level of obsession that they apply to their work.

I'm no exception; I've shown you before some of the ways I express my creativity in my precious moments of free time. To see a lot of other creative scientists, check out the awesome tumblr This Is What a Scientist Looks Like.

See other posts from November 2012


Or read more blog entries about: personal stories, Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory)


TJ Anderson: 11/20/2012 12:44 CST

I honestly thought that Joe was reaching a little. It felt like the conversation I've had with several people about 3D printing, when they don't have much experience with 3D printers. I tell them about the unique shapes made possible by stereolythography, and the ability to produce one of a kind items at a fraction of the cost of classical prototyping, and they excitedly start talking about a sci-fi novel or movie they once saw. Yes, 3D printing may one day get there, and yes they have made historical (neigh earthshaking) advancement in printing tissue, but even in science, you have to walk before you run. Even the scientific leaps that we now see as phenomenal were built on other theories, and almost always took years of refinement before they were published. They may seem stupendous and instantaneous now, but that is often only because we rarely study the scientists who Newton and Einstein studied before developing their theories. I am overjoyed that the media has taken such an interest in Curiosity and Science in general in the last few years. But at the pace media moves in today's society scientific discoveries (in the same vein) cannot keep up with the public's demand for 'new'. I agree that the pieces discussion of the scientists dilemma of publish vs. confirm was good. Especially since with science almost everything is technically theory and it is just a sliding scale of how hard it would be to disprove the theory at any given time. And I am particularly proud of JPL, CERN, and those who recently have held their tongues while they wait for statistically sound confirmation of new information. Plus, the suspense can be good for business (when you get it right).

Mark Detweiler: 11/20/2012 02:39 CST

I especially like your comments about creativity and imagination in science. One of the few quotable thoughts I've ever had is this: "The greatest challenge to human imagination is imagining the world as it really is." Which of course is what scientists are trying to do. The few people with whom I've shared this idea have not grokked it. Good thing I'm not driven by the need for approval!

Joseph Knapp: 11/20/2012 02:56 CST

Well, that is interesting. Dr. Grotzinger has not been one to tease upcoming results before--even with the methane thing he had to be asked about it at a press conference and even then said there was nothing to report yet, but "stay tuned." But this may be "one for the history books"? That's sounds like quite a bit more than a little nibble on the line.

Brie A.: 11/20/2012 03:44 CST

The non-news about Mars is exciting (too bad I'll have to wait a few weeks to learn what Curiosity might have found!) And the needlework Dawn is AWESOME! The science/art connection seems true to me. I learned recently that Al Bean isn't the only astronaut/artist: Alexi Leonov, the world's first space walker, apparently is also a painter!

Robert Elowitz: 11/24/2012 07:51 CST

I wish the report didn't use the term "Earth-shattering". It makes it sound like Curiosity discovered possible amino acids like Glycine (one of the simplest amino acids) or Alanine, two amino acids that wouldn't break down in the oxidizing martian soil. On the other hand, perhaps the so-called discovery will merely be a "false positive".

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