Real Science: ‘No wild expectations, no big promises. But the gadget worked.’

Jun 02, 2013

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From the ever entertaining obituary column in the Economist. It should be read in conjunction with the piece by David Colquhoun in today’s Observer on medical research hype, and a blog post by Andrew Gelman on how Nature and Science resemble tabloid newspapers.

Dr Rohrer, ever down-to-earth, did not think he and Dr Binnig had triggered a revolution: certainly not one to compare with the industrial revolution, or even with the voyages of Columbus. You see, he would say in his sing-song accent, “just getting smaller alone does not make a revolution.” What pleased him most about the STM project, apart from the results, was its simplicity and their own free, lighthearted approach to it, just tinkering with it on the side while doing other work for IBM. They had built the first STM on a shoestring budget, which satisfied his frugal mind: it was held together with Scotch tape, and operated (to reduce vibration) only at night, in breath-held silence. No wild expectations, no big promises. But the gadget worked.

Many other scientists had said it never could. They mocked the project, not least because Dr Rohrer and Dr Binnig had no background either in surface science or in microscopy. Believers in the STM were hard to find at first. But in 1986, when the pair received the Nobel prize for physics, it took its rightful place as chief pathfinder through the new nano-worlds.

Some words from Sydney Brenner on the changing ecology of scientific research come to mind:

Both the old feudal system and the new bureaucracy have consequences for scientific innovation; the former narrowed its pursuit to only a few, while the latter discourages its pursuit by all

Post by Jonathan Rees

Clinical academic and skin watcher at the University of Edinburgh

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