Need a Little Patience…

Physicist Alan Lightman had an interesting editorial in Saturday’s Washington Post. In “What the detection of gravitational waves teaches us about patience,” Lightman noted how:

I was struck by the fact that the leaders of the scientific project are well into their senior years… they have been working on this project, called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), for 40 years.

Lightman goes on to note that,

The world at large, and the United States in particular, has developed an unfortunate need for instant gratification. We not only live in the age of information. We live in the Age of the Now.

This resonated with me for several reasons, not the least of which is my current re-reading of Richard Rhodes’ Pulitzer prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb. The evolution of discovery in atomic physics is often compressed in text books, but Rhodes does a fantastic job of illustrating the decades worth of study and experimentation—to say nothing of the brilliant minds—that helped us see the structure of the atom. An entirely new field—quantum mechanics—emerged as a result. None of this happened overnight. Instead, scientists worked patiently for decades to gain these insights and understandings.

I think there is some truth to Lightman’s assertion that our need for instant gratification affects our patience when it comes to scientific discovery. When told of the cost of theoretical research, the response is often: “What are the practical benefits?” This question is a reflection of that need for instant gratification. Practical applications are not always known ahead of time, but as scientists such as Neils Bohr used to argue, such research allows us to better understand the rules of the cosmic chess game.

I find it convenient to stream movies and TV shows, and to receive same-day orders through Amazon Prime. But I also think we need to do a better job of teaching young students the process of scientific discovery. The scientific method does not serve instantaneous gratification. It is a cumulative process, often slow, and painstaking because it builds upon itself, and it is self-correcting. Hypotheses must be tested experimentally; results must be published and peer-reviewed. All of this takes time.

Instant gratification makes some aspects of life easier. Ordering movie tickets online and having them available on my phone when I walk into a theater is a nice convenience. But there are some things which require a little patience, and scientific discovery is among the most important of these.


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