Tuesday, January 6, 2009

For the Want of a Paperclip

I'm usually loathe to share personal details online but I'm going to do this just this once.

The experiment that I was conducting the other day was progressing along when I realized that a problem had developed that would require immediate attention. Opening up my experiment, I made a goal of having the problem fixed and the whole thing put back together within 4-5 hours in order to minimize the time the experiment would have to sit idle.

Within 4 hours I had, after a few delays, assembled and addressed the necessary issues. Putting the assembly back together I went through a series of steps which I have virtually memorized, having done it many times. Nearing completion, one step involves me tightening by hand a stainless steel 'pin' that is a millimeter or two in diameter to fix a stainless steel rod in place. Using a set of pliers I tightened it more and more until... SNAP!.. the pin broke off in the rod.

The pin, was custom made for this experiment, and so were the metal rods. There were no spares constructed. Under normal circumstances I would take this part to the machine shop and ask them to drill and tap two new holes and build a pin based off the samples I have. But the head of the machine shop is ill and so new work can't be assigned until he returns.

So in the meantime I sit around with my experiment idle fiddling around with computer models of a new addition to the experiment that is still in the planning stages, but largely unproductive.

Now, there is a point to all this rambling. The point is that my situation is hardly unique, many researchers face similar delays on the path to attaining results. I've heard of janitors accidentally destroying glassware that is part of experiments, spiders being electrocuted and causing shorts inside electronics, and lasers being destroyed by water after a fire three floors above.

Research goals are usually just that. Goals. Predicting research breakthroughs is a tricky business, which makes it difficult however for politicians who pass bills funding research. Politicians want to see the political payoff in terms of radical new technology like pollution-free cars or cheaper solar technology during their terms, not 10 years from now when someone else can take the credit.

Politicians need to look beyond their own political instincts in funding research and must recognize that properly supporting science research is an investment in the future. And voters should realize that just because advance X occurred during President Y's term of office does not mean that he deserves the credit for it.

No comments:

Post a Comment