Science as Play
Flying Down to Rio
People often like to pretend they are something they are not. Just
consider the goings–on during Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro or
Mardi Gras in New Orleans—temporary indulgences that only
serve to call attention to the ordinary intolerance of such raucous behavior.
Whereas larger society keeps a lid on the carnival spirit, science
encourages and nurtures the playful wearing of a mask and other
forms of irreverence towards authority. Take the funny names
chemists have given to various polycyclic hydrocarbons:
propellane, paddlane, pagodane, twistane, windowpane,
not to mention bastardane. Their labels for new ketones do
not lag far behind, with penguinone and megaphone.
Acids? Let me only mention moronic and traumatic
acids. I could go on and on: Each class of organic molecules
includes a few such tongue–in–cheek monikers. Similar
fun is had in other fields of science, as for instance by physicists
who have named a class of elementary particles quarks, of
which charm is one of the flavors.
Why, what's the point of all this foolishness? The discoverers of a
new particle and the makers of a new molecule are entitled to give
it a name. Do they abuse their privilege by coming up with a funny
one? Not really. Playful terms transfer the vernacular of the
laboratory to the more formal written language of publications. In
doing so, they gently flaunt seriousness and authority. They wittily
show irreverence. They are the equivalent of the child who sticks
out a tongue at someone in derisive defiance.
Hoaxes are another product of the playfulness of scientists.
Consider a relatively recent example: the "Plate of
Brasse," which states England's claim to California and was
supposedly engraved by Sir Francis Drake's party during his visit in
1579. The plate was discovered in the 1930s. After it was declared
genuine, it became the state's greatest historical document. But in
1977, Helen Michel and Frank Asaro, who were then both on the staff
of the Nuclear Science Division of Lawrence Berkeley National
Laboratory, used neutron–activation analysis to
re–examine the piece. They showed that the copper and zinc
alloyed to make the brass were of higher purity than would have been
available in the 16th century. Drake's plate was likely crafted,
they concluded, between the second half of the 19th century and
1936, when it was first brought to light.
Last year historians at the University of California, Berkeley,
announced that the artifact was devised as a practical joke,
conceived by a group of friends of Herbert E. Bolton, who directed
the Bancroft Library at Berkeley from 1920 to 1940. Bolton, it
seems, was intrigued by tales of Drake having installed a plate to
record his visit to California, so much so that he often urged his
students to look for it. Some of Bolton's chums eventually decided
to pull the professor's leg. But things went awry after Bolton went
public and announced that the ersatz relic was authentic before the
pranksters were able to warn him off.
Clearly, hoaxes can be dangerous it they get out of control. But
most remain safely confined to the laboratory, where they sometime
serve a healthy function, one best demonstrated with another
example. Some years ago Nathan S. Lewis, a professor of chemistry at
Caltech, and a graduate student were doing experiments in the
laboratory of a senior colleague, Harry Gray. Another
coworker—whom I'll just call Fred—had the habit of going
through their data and rushing to Gray with his interpretation.
Lewis decided to set a trap for him. He recalls:
I manufactured an NMR spectrum that was a terrific
result. We left it out as bait. [Fred] took it and wrote up a
paper on how important this result was. He was ready to go right
to [the Journal of the American Chemical Society]. He
had taken hook, line, and sinker on the manufactured piece of
data. We didn't let him mail it, but we let him gloat around for
a couple of days. This stopped him temporarily from taking our
data and interpreting it before making sure it was right.