Machine Envy: Science is Becoming a Cult of Hi-Tech InstrumentsPosted: January 8, 2014
Giant instruments are giving us a sea of data. Can science find its way without any big ideas at the helm?
Philip Ball writes: Whenever I visit scientists to discuss their research, there comes a moment when they say, with barely concealed pride: ‘Do you want a tour of the lab?’ It is invariably slightly touching — like Willy Wonka dying to show off his chocolate factory. I’m glad to accept, knowing what lies in store: shelves lined with bottles or reagents; gleaming, quartz-windowed cryogenic chambers; slabs of perforated steel holding lasers and lenses.
It’s rarely less than impressive. Even if the kit is off-the-shelf, it is wired into a makeshift salmagundi of wires, tubes, cladding, computer-controlled valves and rotors and components with more mysterious functions. Much of the gear, however, is likely to be homemade: custom-built for the research at hand. Whatever else it might accomplish, the typical modern lab set-up is a masterpiece of impromptu engineering — you’d need degrees in electronics and mechanics just to put it all together, never mind making sense of the graphs and numbers it produces. And like the best engineering, these set-ups tend to be kept out of sight. Headlines announcing ‘Scientists have found…’ rarely bother to tell you how the discoveries were made.
Would you care? The tools of science are so specialised that we accept them as a kind of occult machinery for producing knowledge. We figure that they must know how it all works. Likewise, histories of science focus on ideas rather than methods — for the most part, readers just want to know what the discoveries were. Even so, most historians these days recognise that the relationship between scientists and their instruments is an essential part of the story. It isn’t simply that the science is dependent on the devices; the devices actually determine what is known. You explore the things that you have the means to explore, planning your questions accordingly.
When a new instrument comes along, new vistas open up. The telescope and microscope, for example, stimulated discovery by superpowering human perception. Such developments prompt scientists to look at their own machines with fresh eyes. It’s not fanciful to see some of the same anxieties that are found in human relations. Can you be trusted? What are you trying to tell me? You’ve changed my life! Look, isn’t she beautiful? I’m bored with you, you don’t tell me anything new any more. Sorry, I’m swapping you for a newer model… We might even speak of interactions between scientists and their instruments that are healthy or dysfunctional. But how do we tell one from the other?
It seems to me that the most effective (not to mention elegant) scientific instruments serve not only as superpowers for the senses but as prostheses for the mind. They are the physical embodiments of particular thoughts. Take the work of the New Zealand physicist Ernest Rutherford, perhaps the finest experimental scientist of the 20th century. It was at a humble benchtop with cheap, improvised equipment that he discovered the structure of the atom, then proceeded to split it. Rather than being limited by someone else’s view of what one needed to know, Rutherford devised an apparatus to tell him precisely what he wanted to find out. His experiments emerged organically from his ideas: they almost seem like theories constructed out of glass and metal foil.
In one of his finest moments, at Manchester University in 1908, Rutherford and his colleagues figured out that the alpha particles spewed out during radioactive decay were the nuclei of helium atoms. The natural way to test the hypothesis is to collect the particles and see if they behave like helium. Rutherford ordered his glassblower, Otto Baumbach, to make a glass capillary tube with extraordinarily thin walls such that the alpha particles emitted from radium could pass right through. Once the particles had accumulated in an outer chamber, Rutherford connected up the apparatus to become a gas-discharge tube. As electrodes converted the atoms in the gas into charged ions, they would emit light at a wavelength that depended on their chemical identity. Thus he revealed the trapped alpha particles to be helium, disclosed by the signature wavelength of their glow. It was an exceedingly rare example of a piece of apparatus that answers a well-defined question — are alpha particles helium? — with a simple yes/no answer, almost literally by whether a light switches on or not.
A more recent example is the scanning tunnelling microscope, invented by the late Heinrich Rohrer and Gerd Binnig at IBM’s Zurich research lab in 1981. Thanks to a quantum-mechanical effect called tunnelling, the researchers knew that electrons within the surface of an electrically conducting sample should be able to cross a tiny gap to reach another electrode held just above the surface. Because tunnelling is acutely sensitive to the width of the gap, a metal needle moving across the sample at a constant, just out of contact, could trace out the sample’s topography because of surges in the tunnelling current as the tip passed over bumps. If the movement was fine enough, the map might even show the bulges produced by individual atoms and molecules. And so it did. Between the basic idea and a working device, however, lay an incredible amount of practical expertise — sheer craft — allied to rigorous thought. They were often told the instrument ‘should not work’ on principle. Nevertheless, Rohrer and Binnig got it going, inventing perhaps the central tool of nanotechnology and winning a Nobel Prize in 1986 for their efforts.
So that’s when it goes right. What about when it doesn’t? Scientific instruments have always been devices of power: those who have the best ones can find out the most. Galileo knew this — he kept up a cordial correspondence with his fellow astronomer Johannes Kepler in Prague, but when Kepler requested the loan of a telescope, the Italian found excuses. Galileo saw that, with one of these devices, Kepler would become a more serious rival. Instruments, he understood, confer authority.
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