To boldly go

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Jan Both, “Peasants with Mules and Oxen on a Track near a River” (1642-3).

Big science doesn’t have a monopoly on the big questions.

One book that’s sure to be on TIR’s 2018 summer reading recommendations is Michael Hiltzik’s “Big Science”, a page-turner that details Ernest Lawrence’s invention of the cyclotron and the subsequent genesis of the military-industrial complex. The book is noteworthy for making an explicit comparison between the “small science” world of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge in the first quarter of the 20th century (where many of the early discoveries in nuclear physics were made by Rutherford, Thompson et al) and the “big science” world of Berkeley that Lawrence helped to create from the 1930s onwards (with the cyclotron being the ur-ancestor of today’s 17 mile-long Large Hadron Collider).

Indeed, despite the history of nuclear physics and the path to the atomic bomb being endlessly retold and reanalysed, one marvel whose half-life outlasts all the rest is quite how much was learned in those first few years before multimillion dollar budgets starting rolling in courtesy of the Rockefeller Foundation, US Government, and other North American sources. It is truly remarkable how much was discovered and achieved in the strings and sealing wax world of the Cavendish (and other European laboratories) in the early days of nuclear physics.

Those two words are the critical ones: “early days”. The fact is that small science works, and can work astonishingly well, when you’re going into the unknown – when nothing or almost nothing is known, you can go a long way on a small budget and with limited equipment, because there’s absolutely nothing preceding you. Small science worked absolutely fine for Curie, Rutherford, and their contemporaries because so much could be gleaned using the relatively small energies available from natural sources. Once insights using those sources had been mined out however, Lawrence’s high-energy approach became not just necessary, but inevitable – and things spiralled from there.

You almost always need big science to tackle familiar problems, because there’s so much already known that you need to take things to a higher level of accuracy and precision (invariably meaning bigger and more expensive equipment) in order to improve on and go beyond what has already been described. Some of the most intensively-researched areas of molecular biology provide cogent contemporary examples – for instance, consider endocytosis. The 1964 Roth & Porter paper on endocytic uptake in the mosquito oocyte is a classic of its kind that nails all the details of the process, and arguably everything since then has basically been elaboration, but you would never be able to publish a paper on endocytosis like the Roth & Porter one now. It’s simply too primitive.

It’s undeniably the case that new equipment makes it possible to ask new questions, but it’s a mistake to think that you automatically need big science to tackle big questions. Big questions can be tackled with small science, so long as nobody has been there first.

In this respect, and continuing the mining analogy, it’s perhaps fitting to return again to California. Almost one hundred years before Lawrence’s cyclotron, the California Gold Rush of 1849 brought prospectors in their thousands to riverbeds and streams of upstate California to pan for gold. Six years on, the gravel beds were exhausted and large teams and heavy equipment were required. But it was the small-scale methods that established the presence of the gold in the first place.

In that spirit, it’s not hard for small science practitioners to feel a certain kinship with those intrepid 49ers – on shoestring budgets, using scavenged or older equipment, and with none of the resources or razzle-dazzle that their successors would employ – but with the sun on their faces, the freedom of the outdoors, and dreams of making it big.

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