Introducing Proven By Science, by Geeta Dayal

I usually cringe when I see a science story in a newspaper, magazine, or worst of all, TV. ‘CANCER TREATMENT FOUND’, they trumpet. ‘HOW VITAMINS CAN MAKE YOU SMARTER’. Often, the stories are simply erroneous, or they’re based on data that’s too tentative, or the findings are simplified to the point where they don’t mean much. But the most striking problem with the way that mainstream media covers science in our goal-oriented culture is that they focus completely on results, when half the fun and adventure of science is in the process.

Science presented just in terms of results is like receiving a synopsis of the ending of a book or play without actually getting to read it: ‘Romeo and Juliet both die. The End.’ You can’t publish your finding in a scientific journal without having results, of course. But the bulk of a journal article lies in describing procedures, not simply in the mundane “add 1 mL of acetic acid and stir” recipe-sense, but in the experimental design. Much of the creativity in science is in figuring out a strategy to get the result you want, some brilliant twist of the scientific method that lets you see the world in a way that no one has before. How many miserable (yet terribly dramatic and pathos-drenched) years of trying and trying without success did it take? What previous findings did you find inspiration in; what nutty theories were you reading about? The excitement of discovery, the way-cool backstory, are all obliterated in favor of the soundbite. But what makes it even worse is that all they bother telling you is the happy ending.

In science you fail much more often than you succeed. I learned this lesson well during a summer job in a Princeton University chemistry research lab when I was sixteen. My task was to synthesize a new molecule that had never been made before — a treacherous-looking, many-tentacled monster involving several foul sulfurous reactions. Every day, I tried and tried to make the molecule, and every day, I failed. I would redo my experimental setup, shift strategies. I’d ask the professor and graduate students for advice. I’d put in extra hours, working into the night, coming in on weekends. But every time, I failed. I started to think that maybe I was the victim of one big cosmic joke. I complained to the grad student working next to me. “It’s just not working! I’ve been trying to synthesize this goddamn thing for two months now!” She fixed a steely stare at me and said, “I’ve been trying to synthesize this goddamn thing for two years now.” That was my cue to shut up. By the end of the summer, I’d only succeeded in making a fragment of the molecule, but I felt like a badass. I hadn’t generated the result, but I felt older and more knowledgeable, cooler even, in my stained white lab coat and smudged-up eyeglasses and embittered, we’re-in-it-for-the-long-haul expression. When I made the idiot mistake of spilling a strong acid, leaving a horrific chemical burn on my hand with a hot sizzle, the grad students standing next to me helped me clean it and bandage it, and then congratulated me. “Join the club,” they said solemnly, as if I’d now been sworn into their secret cult. The first rule of Fight Club is that you don’t talk about Fight Club. I was one of them now.