Guest Post: Common Myths about Science

by Aliette de Bodard
These Myths Bug The Hell Out Of Me:

A scientist develops a great new invention in his lab on his own. 

It used to be possible, but the days of great geniuses and polymaths like Newton and Descartes are past. Nowadays, it needs a team to develop anything. Most scientists work in teams, and so do most engineers. Someone might still have this amazing idea and make a breakthrough, but a complete prototype on his own? Not possible, as this involves several different areas of competence (see the point just below, too). Also, having people with similar competences to check what you do is usually a Good Idea, if only to make sure you’re not making any mistakes.

Just for the record, a simple prototype for a demonstration, built from scratch, should require at least a dozen people to handle the various aspects of the job. And that’s a bare minimum–like your student association building a robot for a competition. A company would have far, far more people designing the thing.

On a related subject: the scientist who knows everything about every field. He/she was trained in aeronautics, but is also a dab hand at biology, and chemistry too, when needed (I’m looking at you, Sam Carter). 

Again, the days of polymaths is past. It’s possible to have vague knowledge of a lot of subjects, but to be able to make deep and sophisticated calculations in various divergent fields… You can’t be proficient in more than 2-3 connected areas (the BF had a wider education than most, and is still only proficient in physics and somewhat knowledgeable in computer science. He sucks in biology or mechanics. I’m good at computer science, reasonable in applied maths electronics, and suck at everything else).

The scientist(s) who has this great and amazing idea, and builds a prototype in a few days or a few weeks. Frequent bonus: the prototype survives field use and turns out to be perfectly operational. 

Here’s the deal: developing anything is a long and drawn-out process, and field conditions are not a joke (sand that gets everywhere, weird temperatures… Your average materials are often going to take it badly). Building a prototype, even as part of a team, is more likely to need a year than a few weeks. And I’ll eat my hat if that hastily-conceived prototype is actually up to field conditions unless God takes a personal hand in the matter…

The aforementioned prototype is taken for an experiment, and no one keeps any backup anywhere. When it’s destroyed, people complain that they won’t be able to rebuild it.

Er, yes, OK. Sometimes it has happened. But this is BAD planning. Most companies/army research centres have backups and document every step of the prototype production. Not being able to rebuild it at all smacks of incompetence.

The scientist is setting up an experiment in field conditions, make modifications to the setup, and takes ages to relaunch the experiment (this usually happens when the bad guys are firing on the scientist’s position).

If you have, say, an electrical circuit and you’ve just rewired it with a few components, you don’t actually need to spend ages typing on the computer to make it work. It should be the equivalent of flicking a switch, and if you need more than a few seconds, I’ll start wondering about your actual skillset…

On a related subject, the scientist sets up an experiment in field conditions, and appears to have no idea what they’re going to do when the experiment fails.

Experiments have a protocol. They are actually prepared. You just don’t show up with your new shiny equipment and start fiddling with it in the thick of the action. Otherwise, the likelihood is that it won’t work, or worse, that you’ll fry something. And if you’re a good scientist/engineer, you’ve considered the fact that it might not work and have thought of one if not several backup solutions. Fiddling is all well and good, but the sad fact is that it’s seldom effective.

The scientist solves what looks like an amazingly complicated problem to the profane, but is actually quite a basic problem.

This is obviously a case of writerly misdirection and/or lack of research, but it’s really annoying when you happen to know a little about the subject matter (and nothing kills my trust in an SF show faster than this). The most recent example of this was Sam Carter bragging about writing an algorithm that searched through a database for words composed of a particular set of 18 symbols. This is a trivial problem (all the more so if the database is sorted, which they’ll have done if they have any brains).

A bonus case of this is when people start misusing scientific concepts. If I hear “logarithmic decrease” again, I’ll scream (a logarithm is a function that actually increases, and it’s also the one that has the slowest possible growth, so I’m not quite sure what a logarithmic decrease is supposed to be except obfuscation).

See, this is why I can’t watch most shows that are all about the cool science. I need characters to distract me :-)

What about you? Any common misconceptions that drive you up the wall when you watch movies/series?

Aliette de Bodard lives in Paris in a flat with more computers than warm bodies, and three Lovecraftian plants in the process of taking over the living room. In her spare time, she writes speculative fiction, which has won the British Science Fiction Association Award and has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her trilogy of Aztec noir Obsidian and Blood is published by Angry Robot, and her novella On a Red Station, Drifting is forthcoming from Immersion Press. This post first appeared on her blog.

11 Responses

  1. Teresa Robeson

    I mourn the death of the Renaissance man. It would have been cool to meet (even cooler to be) Leonardo da Vinci, for example, who knew a lot about everything.

    But you’re right: these days, it’s impossible to invent things by oneself or for one person to know all/many subjects intimately. Hubby is a geographer/climatologist so he has working knowledge of physics, chemistry, statistics, computer programming, and social science research, but he only has expert knowledge in maybe one or two of those areas.

    And the joke is, if you want to invent something, get a grant and assemble a team, isn’t it?

    It is hard to watch movies/series for my family too. The most common gaffe is hearing explosions in space – that’s an easy one – but there are so many, many things that make us smack our foreheads. We recently watched The Avengers via Netflix, and if I had a dollar for every time our 16 year old muttered about something defying the laws of physics or some other aspect of science (Thor exempted, naturally, since he is a god), we could have paid for theater tickets. But, then again, nobody in the theater would appreciate us complaining about science being butchered on the big screen. 😉

  2. Nader Elhefnawy

    Hi Ms. de Bodard.

    I think you got most of the big ones. I complained about many of these same points on my blog earlier this year.

    The only one I’d add is the issue of the resources involved in this kind of work – the big money that only government, and large corporations (themselves often underwritten by government) are able to supply, which is rarely given any thought.

    As you point out in your references to Sam Carter, Stargate really is awful about this stuff, but Eureka is probably worse. In fact, I’ve taken to calling this “the Eureka paradigm.”

    If this was just what we saw in science fiction, that would be bad enough – but a bigger problem is that people really do believe these images, with the result that they think of technological R & D as the stuff of an Edisonade.

  3. Scott Zachary

    Given my prior military service, and that shooting is somewhat of a hobby of mine, I get particularly irate with writers who couldn’t figure out what end the bullet comes out of if their lives depended on it. It’s totally cool if you don’t like firearms yourself, but if you’re going to write about them do a little research. Better yet, hit a range and see how one works in action.

    And, please, don’t rack the slide every time you pull out your pistol. That just wastes ammunition. 🙂

  4. Morgan Alreth

    I can agree with part of what you are saying, but I’m not comfortable with the vehemnce with which you emphasize the position that there is no longer any room for the individual genius to accomplish anything of note. If I am mis-interpreting your words, please forgive me.

    Stephen Hawking jumps to mind right off the bat. Freeman Dyson? Or what about other people in our own line of work, such as Ray bradbury, who have been responsible for inventing so many new concepts?

    I will grant that hardware development is often complicated, and expensive. But that doesn’t apply to all types of creation. Not even all hardware creation.

    My background is primarily in civl engineering. I have seen a lot of field adaptations done on-the-fly in order to meet the needs of unexpected issues. Many of them were quite clever. Some of them even approached the level of genius, in my opinion. And many of them were created by people who lacked college degrees.

    All knowledge is interconnected. I also grant that it is impossible for any person to be an expert in everything. But it is certainly possible for a person to be an expert in more than one field, and some people are capable of becoming experts in multiple fields, while maintaining at least some core competencey in a variety of other areas. Because all knowledge is interconnected, and one fact inexorably leads to another, and another, and so on.

    Do movies and tv oversimplify the process of learning and invention to a ridiculous extent? Certainly. But that doesn’t mean the lone inventor is obsolete. It depends on what he/she is inventing. A new artifical heart might require a team and a large budget. A small, wind-powered led lamp suitable for use in a third world hut might be a different matter.

  5. John Johnston III

    Stuff and nonsense. I have seen a one-scientist prototype three times in my life, one requiring a single tech and the other two solo products. I have known scientists who were competent in many, many fields. I myself am competent in three different areas of science, and have taught both engineering and science – as well as an art and a humanity – at a Tier One university, while being a full-time researcher/administrator and along the way also working for a homicide research unit and serving as the assistant director of the U.S. Civil War Center. Plus I’m in SFWA and write in other fields and I still rank about tenth or so in flexibility among just the scientists IN MY BUILDING. The amazing gentleman down the hall from Cambridge would blow you and your thesis totally away. I could go on all night. Sincerely, a veteran of 37 years of science (plus)

  6. Aliette de Bodard

    @Teresa: one of the worst offenders I’ve ever seen is CSI: Miami, which had me talking every 2 minutes…
    @Nader: very true! Though I think it depends on scale of project–possible to do complex software on a tight budget, less so to build your own space shuttle…
    @Scott: agreed. Firearms are also not a shining example of how to get things right.
    @Morgan: I agree you get the odd genius (though notice that even Stephen Hawking isn’t the wide-ranging expert that Leonardo Da Vinci was and that no one can have expert knowledge of most sciences); my point is that making them the norm for scientists is disingenuous. Also, yes, you can definitely have inventions with lone geniuses; but by and large they’re getting rarer and rarer, and they have to be something quite simple.
    @John: “competence” in many fields is indeed possible; expertise in many of them I don’t believe in. I have also worked quite extensively with elite scientists and engineers and have yet to find a single one who had the breadth and depth of knowledge ascribed to lone geniuses in movies and TV series.
    (and yes, I’ve seen simple prototypes developed by few people, but again they’re not the norm; and in Stargate’s line of work, which frequently involve large-scale engineering, the number of prototypes that turn out to be developed within a few weeks is not believable)

  7. John Johnston III

    You very well may not have seen it, but that’s likely due to youth and small sample size. My best friend for many years – one of UC Berkeley’s finest products – had expertise by any definition in four. I know and have known people with more expertise than he had. I knew a dean years ago, whose doctoral committee had all been Nobel laureates, whose intellect was so diverse and so vast that I found it virtually inhuman.

    I am also acquainted with a gentleman, humorously nicknamed “McGyver'” who literally can construct whatever you can conceive of, within the limits of technology.

  8. Morgan Alreth

    Be it noted that much of the groundwork for almost anything you can conceive of has already been invented and is commercially available. You can hit the local Radio Shack or equivalent and pick up the stock components for a breadboarded rig that will operate as a tranceiver at frequencies from x-ray to… whatever. Laser diodes are commercially available, as are the components to assemble home made stun guns, bombs, cutting torches, flame throwers, trebuchets, home made rockets (fromt scratch) and many other goodies.

    There is also the fact that massive wads and scads and piles of knowledge exists and is freely available to those of us who live in a free society. Someone of average intelligence or higher, who is willing to put int he time and effort, can find the necessary information to build almost anything thta strikes their fancy. Eventually. Recall the famous story of the school kid who built a working model of a fission bomb. All heneeded was uranium. The federal government fulled its collective pants, but nothing he did was illegal, and it was all done with commercially available supplies.

    “1% inspiration, 99% perspiration” like the guy said.