Friday, August 18, 2006


When I took a course in college physics, one of the things I had to do was perform various experiments to determine wiphysical properties like the gravitational constant. The value of this constant is 9.8m/s/s – if you drop an object in a vacuum, it will be moving at 9.8m/s after 1 second, 19.6m/s after two seconds, etc. After performing several of these experiments, I was tempted to write up something proclaiming that, no, scientists had gotten it wrong all these centuries and that the gravitational constant was actually 6ms/s/s or some such.

These experiments always seemed to have three phases. During the first part you and your lab partners would be doing things like they were English Gentlemen:

(Me): 1.2, 1.7, 2.5, 6.3 (Lab partner, jotting notes): Jolly good.

At some point you would reach the “epiphany” where we took at our preliminary results and realized that things weren’t working quite as planned:

(Lab partner): And here we have the preliminary results. (pause, sound of scribbling) (Me): Yes? (Partner): Umm... 6.5m/s/s (Me): What?!!

Then the experiment would enter the panic stage:

(Me): That can’t be right! Lemme see that! (Partner): Don’t blame me, you were the one giving me the data! (Me): Look you, forgot to add this value! (More mad scribbling) (Partner): Well?!! (Me): Ha! See? Here’s the real value… 6.9m/s/s (Partner): Shit! (Me, with a desperate look at the clock): How much time do we have left? (Partner): 20 minutes. (Me): Shit! Shit! Shit! We’re gonna fail! (Partner): Couldn’t we steal someone else’s data?

And mind you, this is a relatively easy experiment.

I don’t know what the instructors of these courses are trying to teach, but what they taught me was to be extremely skeptical of scientific results. Given the number of times that my partner in crime and I exaggerated, fudged, or outright lied about our results for the paltry reward of a crappy physics grade, I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be a real physicist. Here’s a person with millions of dollars of finicky, jury-rigged equipment that measures some tiny value that can be screwed up if someone looks at it the wrong way. They spend years trying to get things just right and end up with results that have to be analyzed endlessly, for which their career is hanging in the balance, and make some conclusion based on it.

No pressure.

I imagine that’s why there are so many PhD students – if something goes wrong, you can blame them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Takes me back down memory lane...unfortunately..