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The Control: A Lenten meditation

12 Feb 13 | Re: The science of nothing | Link-U-Post

I think if I was a scientist, my speciality would be doing the control experiment. Doing nothing to something and seeing what if anything happened to it. All very well for those geniuses in the next room to say “we bombarded this frog with radiation and it mutated into an uberfrog”. Ah! But I was in my control lab doing nothing to my frog Tina, and she mutated into something even bigger, so what have you really proved? James, control experiment master, strikes again.

And that’s why the control is very very important at all levels of science. Yes they have the Large Hadron Collider over in Switzerland. What’s less widely reported is the Large Nothing Non-Collider under the next Alp but one that they use for the control experiments. Obviously this was very expensive to dig out, being another massive subterranean doughnut exactly the same size as the main Collider, but its running costs are a great deal lower. It just sits there with the power off at all times, while a fellow with a clipboard monitors it to see if any bosons are popping up or black holes are being created without anybody doing whatever it is that the main guys spend their time doing. Then every three weeks he draws a graph of it all – of nothing – and sends it over for analysis.

It’s even arguable that the control is of more value than the actual experiment. Do a science experiment without a control and what have you got? Random, meaningless actions that by definition, can’t tell you anything. Do a control experiment without a main one, though, and you have something quite good. A beaker full of unheated water. A healthy, happy mouse. A giant, circular, pristine underground racetrack. Very calming. Very Zen.

So it’s a source of worry to me that there have, to my knowledge, so far been no Nobel prizes awarded to those hardworking doers of nothing who run the controls in all the world’s labs. The awards all go to the people who got results. But without not getting results, there can be no getting results. Or at least no credit for it.

And don’t tell me it doesn’t need talent. That there aren’t particular scientists whose forte lies in making sure absolutely nothing is done to their subject. Whose lab coats don’t even need laundering once in a month of Sundays. Who, provide, in short, the best possible contrast and comparison with actual activity. They just don’t get recognised because nobody is interested in things that haven’t happened, or that don’t happen, or that aren’t true. People want it to be all “Eureka!” and no “Er, well, actually.” But er, well, actually, er, well, actually happens to be a big part of life.

Posted by SEGUNDA IZQUIERDO at 21:43

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