Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Critic as a Scientist: A Dialogue on Incremental Science

A DIALOGUE. Persons: Gilbert and Ernest. Scene: Gilbert's Office, University building, 4th floor.

ERNEST (knocking gently): Gilbert? Do you have a moment? May I come in for a brief chat?

GILBERT: Of course, come in Ernest! How are things going? What's on your mind?

ERNEST: Well, it's about my proposal  ...  the one you were going to look over. Have you had a chance?  I mean, to read it?

GILBERT: Indeed. Your proposal. Right. Rather hefty tome, wasn't it?  Let me see here. The one on X-Ray crystallography of owl pellets in urban parks?

ERNEST: No, not that one. That is not my area of interest. If I may refresh your memory, it was the one about computational modeling of the skunk olfactory system using deep belief networks.

GILBERT: Ah yes, of course! I did have a look at your proposal last weekend I believe it was. Curled up to it on an eve with a cup of Earl Grey and the Kardashians on the telly.

ERNEST: And? What did you think? I think it's quite far-ranging, quite exciting!

GILBERT: Appalling family. Simply appalling my dear fellow Ernest. The Kardashians, what has gotten in to --

ERNEST: no -- I mean my proposal, not the ... Kardashians.

GILBERT: Ah yes, quite so! Your proposal. Here's the thing. And I want you to take this in the intended spirit as, you know, constructive and all that. A young scientist's psyche is a tender thing and one must be careful about these matters.

ERNEST: Oh! Of course. That's why I came to you, out of all the people in our department, it's your critical faculty, your experience, your ability to get right at the heart of the matter. Everyone told me you're the one I should talk to, that you're  a "straight shooter" and so on.

GILBERT: Well, I don't know about that. I'm adequate. I have read many a grant proposal, I will say that. Now. About your little effort. My impression -- and let me say that I am not completely familiar with the skunk olfactory system, and so forth -- but my overall impression was that the work you propose, and I mean no offense here, is a tad, how shall I put it, incremental.

ERNEST: Well, do you really mean it? So you think my work will advance the field!? This is wonderful coming from someone with such experience, such a sharp and probing critic ... I don't know what to say, I could not have hoped for such a validation of my work at this stage in my career!

GILBERT: Uh, yes, well. Ernest. I think perhaps you have misunderstood me. That is to say, I do not think that my comment can necessarily be taken quite so ... positively.

ERNEST: Whatever can you mean, does my work not advance the field?

GILBERT: Yes, it does. Certainly. Excellent studies, careful work, well-controlled, and so forth. But you're playing small ball. You're advancing the ball, but barely two yards. Three at best. Right up the middle in a great pile-up. The punter is already warming up. It's, as I say, incremental.

ERNEST: But surely this is how science progresses, in small steps, is it not? Small accumulations, little advances, we chip away at the unknown, with our little tools, our chisels and picks, scraping off one layer at a time. Nature is miserly with her secrets, and we cannot expect to simply knock down her door in an uncouth and greedy rampage, we must approach her with guile and care, craft and painstaking diligence!

GILBERT: That is a fine sentiment, Ernest. Marvellously quaint. But, it doesn't work like that. Not in this funding climate, anyway.

You don't want these baby steps. No one wants that anymore. They want leaps, big leaps. Triple jumps, you know. Great strides, long bombs. You have to throw the ball down field. Deep down field. Who was the chap? Evil Knievel, jumped his blasted motorbike over the Grand Canyon -- now that was daring! You must conduct experiments that only a fool would think could possibly succeed but once in 20 times.

ERNEST: But a leap is itself an increment, so I don't quite follow here. I fail to see how you are quantifying increment here. What is the scale? What are the units?

GILBERT: Ernest, don't be such a bore. Take for instance my own work. If I may? I hope you don't find me conceited. My work on the iridescence of polar bear pelts in arctic climes is clearly an example of research that moves the field. And when I say "move", I don't mean little itty-bitty steps, tiny eency-weency increments. No. I mean giant steps. No, not even steps. Because a step implies that both feet are on the ground at some point. Right? I mean, we know this from Olympic speed-walking competitions. They hand out penalties for skipping, or whatever they call it. But I digress. Where was I? Yes. My work. I hope you don't mind if I avail myself of a sports metaphor?

ERNEST: By all means.

GILBERT: Well, my own work reminds me a little bit of when Michael Jordan -- shall I call him M.J.? [Ernest Nods] -- er, it reminds me of when M.J. triumphed in the great the dunk contest in 1985 in Chicago. Do you remember in what fashion he won that epic event?

ERNEST: Oh yes, I'm a big basketball fan, yes it was marvellous! The dunk from the free throw line, I assume you mean?

GILBERT: Exactly! He started way back at the far end of the court, in a lovely little saunter, and then accelerated with that long graceful body down the full length of the court and then he did it! With foot planted from on the free throw line he took off and soared, sharking his way through the air, lifting higher and higher, his tongue wagging, cameras flashing all over the arena -- and then he threw it down! To thunderous applause! It was ... sublime, a gorgeous combination of beauty and athletic grace that hinted at a higher aesthetic, the numinous, of an exalted state of consciousness that is only occasionally glimpsed from amid the dull quotidiana that fills our lives here on earth ... Yes! This is what my research is like! It is the very personification of my scientific work!

ERNEST: Of course. Gilbert, your research on the reflective properties of the polar bear fur is known everywhere, I have heard. It is brilliant, everybody acknowledges that. It is inspiring work, perhaps even "Jordanesque". But, if I may? Your example is perhaps not entirely apt.


ERNEST: That is, as an example of a "non-incremental" achievement, it is not quite apt.

GILBERT: How so, my dear Ernest?

ERNEST: Why don't you know? It was Julius Erving, "Dr. J." that pioneered the dunk from the free throw line. Only Dr. J. did it first in 1976 in the ABA dunk contest to much fanfare. Moreover, he repeated the feat in the 1984 NBA dunk contest as an aging veteran in his legendary showdown with Larry Nance in the final round.

GILBERT: Ah yes, of course. It slipped my mind. It is true that Dr. J. was something of a forerunner here. But to call M.J.'s version of the free throw line dunk "incremental" is nothing short of absurd. For one, Dr. J. ran with the ball, whereas Michael dribbled the ball the full length of the court, and ...

ERNEST [interrupting]: Seems rather incremental.

GILBERT: ... Michael did that little -- that little -- how should I call it, that little "pump" with the ball. A wonderful little accent, so stylish, so perfect! Here, see for yourself, it's easy to find on YouTube.  

ERNEST: You have no argument from me that it was an exquisite dunk. But nevertheless an incremental advance over Dr. J's effort. In my opinion. Indeed, there is something about Dr. J's dunk, it's very spareness, its unadorned beauty, the austerity, the grace. It was Homer's Iliad to M.J.s Johnny-come-lately Aeneid. It seems to me that Jordan dressed up Dr. J.'s perfect dunk with unnecessary ornamentation, curlicued mannerism, topping it off with some rather superfluous hip-hop preening and face-making.

GILBERT: You may have a point my dear Ernest, but if I may paraphrase the great Argentinian author Borges -- or  Bor-hace as they call him in his native land -- great men create their own precursors. You are being too literal with chronology here Ernest, as far as I am concerned the free throw line is entirely MJ's, notwithstanding the rather primitive earlier effort by Dr. J.

Let me tell you a story about another doctor, Dr. J. Winston Finch, a zoologist of the mid 20th century who made many important observations on plant and animal life in the arctic. Finch, as it happens, penned some rather incisive remarks on the reflective aspects of the polar bear coat that he would include in a footnote of an article that was published in an esoteric Soviet zoological journal in the early 1950s. I cannot recall how I came into possession of this work, only that I went to considerable effort to have it translated from the original (and, I might add horribly, broken) Russian in which it was written. What I found in the footnote was to change my life forever, as it contained an almost fully-formed theory of polar bear fur-reflectance, replete with mathematical formulae and several rather ingenious hypotheses about the evolutionary provenance of the polar bear's white coat. In a fever of work over the summer of 1967 I turned Finch's footnote into a robust work of science and, later that year when my effort was published in Nature Arctic, would make me famous in zoological circles the world over. And how far had I really gone beyond the ideas contained in Dr. Finch's obscure footnote? Not far, to be honest. I dressed it up, repackaged it. If you will, Ernest, I added a my little "pump" move, where he ran, I dribbled. Still it was a quantum of difference that would change my life forever.

ERNEST: A "quantum"?

GILBERT: You are too literal my friend. It was a quantum leap in the metaphorical sense. If you prefer it was a thousand leagues, a dozen light years, over the moon and then some. His footnote was utterly forgettable, my paper and the work that would follow is an imperishable monument to science.

ERNEST: And what became of Finch?

GILBERT: He died in utter penury of Syphilis in an Igloo in 1972. His notes indicate that he was still working, that he had become fanatically (and fatally) obsessed with the red-throated loon, but had almost completely lost his wits. It seems that the many years he spent in the harsh arctic climate had taken a toll on him. He was an indefatigable seeker of truth, a scientist to the core, but was not successful in the career-sense that is so important to us these days.

ERNEST: That is tragic!

GILBERT: It is a cautionary tale. His work was, of course, irremediably incremental. He plugged away, year after year. He did publish from time to time, but his work did not garner attention, and his shoe-string budget was a thing of necessity, as the funding agencies had little appreciation for his brand of painstaking science.

ERNEST: And yet you have succeeded where he failed.

GILBERT: And, what's more, without having ever set foot in a cold climate for the purpose of field work. Field work! It reeks of incrementalism, of course. Yes, where Dr. Finch toiled, I shined in the reflected light of acclaim and admiration. My popular books sold by the hundreds, my scientific researches thrived. While he was logging his data and making those absurdly minute little observations, I was dreaming up big ideas, giving keynotes in front of giant crowds, taking risks, daring to outstrip the "frontiers of science". That has made all the difference, my dear Ernest.

ERNEST: I think I see where you're coming from. I must avoid the awful fate of Dr. Finch, I can imagine him shivering in that Igloo, frost-bitten hands, with that awful little journal, the song of the red-throated loon worming around his head like some dread and haunting hallucination. It is too horrifying to contemplate.

GILBERT: Earnest, I am glad that I have made some impression on you. I do not wish to make you ill at ease. I do think that you have a modicum of talent. I believe you could eek out a career at this University, perhaps even become a full professor some day. However, Ernest, I think I may offer you a last bit of advice. It's about the skunk. Well, I think you should stop studying it. You need to part ways with the skunk.

ERNEST: But whatever for? I have devoted my career to the study of the skunk's olfactory system: it is one of nature's most fascinating puzzles. It is an exquisitely sensitive organ that has evolved to tolerate the sulphurous musk that it uses to repel would-be attackers. ...

GILBERT: But Ernest, lets be honest, it's an appalling creature. Perfectly appalling. You're never going to get anywhere with the skunk. Not in this funding climate. Vicious little creatures with a hideous stench. Look at the polar bear, for instance. Noble. Majestic. It lords over the arctic tundra with power and panache. 

Why don't you study ... the Galago? Galago's are all the rage right now. There were three Galago Science papers in the last three months! Galago's are just phenomenally sexy right row.

ERNEST: What do I know about Galagos? Nothing! Well, I do know this: their olfactory systems are utterly pedestrian. There is simply no there there. Galago, do you really mean it?

GILBERT: I do Ernest. I do. You may take my career advice, or not. Perhaps you view me as some sort of pompous avuncular brute that is overstepping his bounds. I don't mind. But Ernest, I do very much want you to succeed, is all. Do look in to it. Charming little creatures, Galagos, with those large, flashing eyes!  I think you'll thrive with the Galago, I really do.  You're a quick study I understand. Take the plunge. Bury yourself in the library for a few weeks, you'll emerge a Galago expert, I know it!

ERNEST: Do you think so? OK, I will. I'll do it, I'll consider it very seriously at least. I do want to succeed. If I need to switch fields I will.

GILBERT: That's the spirit!

ERNEST. Thank you, Gilbert, this has been very helpful. I'm glad I knocked on your door.

GILBERT: Oh, any time.

ERNEST: Shall I see you at the Faculty Club some time?

GILBERT: Of course! Um .. and Ernest. About Dr. Finch and you know ... the footnote. Please do let us keep that between us. Shall we? It was a bit of an unguarded moment. To be perfectly honest, I have never told a soul about that. I hope you understand...

ERNEST: Of course, I will take it to the grave!

GILBERT: Wonderful!

ERNEST: Bye now!


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