Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Ronald Reagan should have been an analytical chemist.

A lot has been written about the 40th President of the United States, and for good reason: The man was a character. This is not surprising, since in his first career he worked as a character actor. But despite all the various comments made to and about The Duke over the past century, I don’t think anyone has suggested that he run an analytical lab So let me be the first. As far as I know, Ronnie was not great talent at the lab bench. I haven’t ever heard of him having a unique and incisive perspective on unlocking the secrets of the natural world. But I think hew would be a good lab director because of a catchy phrase that he coined. This phrase is as useful in the lab as it is in fighting the Evil Empire:

“Trust, but Verify”

This is a great axiom for analytical science. If you never trust anything, you will never make any progress- modern science is too complicated and technologically reliant for scientists to be able to construct every detail of their experiments from first principles.

On the other hand, if you just believe every paper you read and every number you look up, you will get yourself in all sorts of trouble. I think that a lot of the “knack” in practicing scientific problem solving is knowing which things to trust and which to test.

Case in point. A while ago, a student came to my lab with a standard from a reputable and respected scientific establishment. He used it, got some unusual results, tried to verify them by measuring them against some other standards. The results didn’t agree. Since the discrepancy in his results was larger than what can be explained by the standard sorts of variations, he decided to take a closer look.

He dissolved part of his standard, ran the solution, and discovered that the “known” value for the element he was interested in was wrong by an ORDER OF MAGNITUDE. Oops. I don’t think this was the case of a misplaced decimal point, either. People far wiser and more knowledgeable about this particular system than I have suggested that the error was actually in the way the sample was manufactured and analysed.

That’s a pretty big Oops. Especially for an organization that prides itself on getting things right. But still, I’ve done worse. In my first ever scientific presentation as a grad student, I misrepresented the viscosity of the lower mantle- by 42 orders of magnitude. That’s right, the number I quoted was 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times smaller than the accepted value. I did this in front of the former director, no less, who is one of the people who figured out how to measure mantle viscosity in the first place.

Oh well. I’ve always been more partial to experimentation than book research, but still. You’d have to be an astronomer to make a mistake of this size in public. That or a vain woman misrepresenting her weight or age. As for me, I’m just a lab lemming who forgot to put a minus sign on his exponent. But hey. Being a student is all about learning, isn’t it? Which is why I tell the students coming through now to think like Reagan when doing their research. Trust, but verify.

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