Thursday, October 04, 2007

beep beep

Beep...beep... one of the most famous sounds in history, the voice of Sputnik saluting the earth from space. Sputnik the pioneer of the dream of space travel, Sputnik the herald of the Cold War. It's 50 years today since the first time humans ventured into space. My train is pulling into Penn Station, a short ride down from New Haven. I'm touring a few universities in the east coast, trying to see if I can find a way to direct my future towards more stable shores.

Salute Sputnik, "travel companion". Fifty years look like an eternity now.
Beep... beep... It's hard to imagine nowadays how this small ball of steel could shock this nation into panic and fear. Yet, not a few scientists working in the most prestigious American institutions sincerely think that the opportunities, both in terms of research fundings and academic positions, they enjoyed in their early stages of career back in the sixties were entirely the effect of the Sputnik shock wave. The very rapid development of postwar science in the US owes a lot to the Cold War and to the perceived Soviet advantage in the early stages of the space race. Beep... beep!

Today fundings for science are heavily cut. The US government is mostly worried about silencing science when it says sensible things that run contrary to the current political agenda or when it displeases the religious fundamentalist voters.
Beep ... beep ...

Another important lesson the Sputnik story teaches us is that in science it is always important to have a good reality check. When the American refused to fund von Braun's proposal for putting satellites in space and funded instead the failure called "Project Vanguard", the Soviet success with Sputnik came as a much needed reality check. Needless to say, von Braun's project was quickly reinstated and the US got their successful satellite launch not long afterwards. Science is made of trial and error and making mistakes is an inevitable part of the process. What is important, though, is that mistakes are exposed in full sight. Bad science is not the science were occasional mistakes are made, but the one where they are covered up. The Cold War, the space race, the overt technological and scientific competition between the two superpowers provided a continuous source of such reality checks. Competition can be bad, in as it often hinders creativity or forces researchers to focus on shorter term project or on subjects that are perceived as more "fashionable" than others. However, the total lack of any confrontation with reality has an even worse effect: when scientists sit on the feeling of self-importance acquired by virtue of their earlier successes and surround themselves by unquestioning followers of the same doctrine, as one sees so often happening in Europe, where research is so much structured around the idea of the "equipe" or "research group" at the direct dependence of a single senior scientist. This model is too hierarchical, too static and deprived of healthy dissent, of nontrivial dynamics. Good science so often lies in the unexpected.

Beep... beep... is the call of the unexpected challenge that reveals a mistake, uncovers the narrowness of an otherwise unquestioned approach. Beep ... beep...
is the Sputnik's wake up call for those academics too much used to rest on their laurels! We need a multitude of Sputniks to wake up the world!

Salute, Sputnik, you got us 50 years of dreams to space flight, often unrealized, betrayed, dropped for more mundane preoccupations. You gave us the biggest increase in history in government spendings in science and scientific educations. We need a multitude of Sputniks to bring the world to the threshold of scientific literacy, to keep us from slipping back into the dark ages. Beep... beep... beep ... beep ...