Saturday, January 23, 2010

Can science be artistic?

UPDATE: the winning entry is now posted here!
In light of the lack of effective communication between scientists (and science generally) and the public, I posed a challenge to the graduate students in my department: write a story about your research. It seemed a simple task, but there was one catch - the story had to be a fictional tale about their actual work.
Can science be artistic? Is it only a chosen few who can turn science into the kind of thing that people on the street (or in the pub) find interesting; people like Carl Sagan, Brian Greene or Jim Al-Khalili? Or is it perhaps that we in the scientific community have strayed too far, have forgotten that Darwin's Origin of the Species sold in train stations like a paperback novel, have forgotten that Pythagoras had such popular ideas that a cult formed around him?
In a spirit of participation, fun and fair play, I have posted my own story below. It refers to the experiment described in the reference at the bottom of the page.

When I was very young, I was taught that I was born of a star. And not just any star, mind you, an explosive one; one with the energy and power and might to send those whom It chooses into the far-off reaches of the Known Universe. This is what I was taught, and this I believed.
"You Neons are a special kind," said a leader of the Oxygens the day I was born. "You live brightly and quickly, and you carry energy and a proud lineage." He told us of the history of our Star and recited to us the predictions concerning the end of time, things we all knew anyway, ancient wisdoms as intrinsic to our being as the processes which formed us. "Out there, out in the great Darkness beyond where we can see and know, two stars met and danced the dance of destruction. Together they spun, and soon one star - our Star - was found to be the stronger of the two." Hail Mighty Star, we all cried out, but were soon hushed. "Our Star, being victorious, began to consume the other, taking from it the precious, irreplaceable fuel of life: the Hydrogens." Here we all cheered again, for this, we knew, was how we had been born. The Hydrogens carried the potential of all the known world; they were catalysts for creation, along with the ascetic Heliums to a lesser extent, allowing those who are reverent and good and true to progress until reaching the pinnacle of life for an Ion - to become a great Iron. The Irons were the wise, the brave, the just, the sacrosanct. To become an Iron was the greatest hope of all Ions everywhere. The Oxygen continued: "As you know, in your past lives you were Fluorines who followed the Sacred Breakout Path, and in your tenacity and faith you were granted, by the good will of our Star, to merge with a Hydrogen. Now, Neons, you are here, and you must continue on the Path set out before you if you wish to become great and powerful Irons. Do not falter or doubt, or you will decay back to a lower class, but trust in the Star and go forth into that darkness. Let the great Star, who even now explodes in a spectacular sacrifice to send Its children into the Known Universe, guide you and light your way." With this, a general noise arose from those assembled, shouts of "here here!" and "hail!" and "bless!" which grew quickly into a din, over which the Oxygen could no longer be heard.
My brethren and I didn't understand what propelled us all from our home, all we knew was that some unseen momentum carried us further and further into the blackness. We thought it fortunate that the Star had seen fit to send us together, and what's more, with a contingent of Fluorines as guards. We passed quickly from the Star into the unknown, the last remaining Hydrogens sparse and cold. But our faith was strong, and we continued onward.
Somewhere along the way, something happened. Something strange and frightening. The Fluorines left us, veering away into the black. Suddenly, screams, and ghostly Gamma Spirits burst into view. The Gammas wailed as they passed us, ancient dirges and laments of energy lost. "Woah unto those who lose the Path," they cried out. "Birth and death, endless cycles for those who do not proceed along the Path! You who are fearless and hard-hearted, having seen so many sufferings of birth, de-excitation, decay and death, are wasting your lives, endowed with freedom and opportunity, on the paths of distraction!" It was a hymn I had heard before, though I could not recall in what context; some shadow of a memory from a past life. Without prompting, I, and several others, joined in the refrain: "O Star, grant us your blessing, that we may continuously remember impermanence and decay!" I recalled my own short lifetime, the end which I knew would come if I did not remain on the Path and, by the Star's good will, be transformed into something greater than myself.
We carried on with a few remaining Fluorines, singing ancient hymns to the Star as we went. The darkness was all-encompassing. From all I knew of the history of the Star, I did not understand why we had failed to encounter any others - Magnesiums, Sodiums, Lithiums, anyone. Fear as well as faith motivated us. More Fluorines disappeared.
As suddenly as the blackness had enveloped us, there loomed ahead something we never anticipated. It seemed almost impenetrable - arrayed before us were Hydrogens and Carbons, standing in crystallized guard. This was counter to what we understood the Star to be; we expected randomness and uncertainty, but these guards seemed connected to one another and remained unnaturally still. Strangely, these guards let us pass with no more than a few soft collisions, forcing us to slow as we approached whatever awaited us on the other side.
We stepped past the guards to discover massive beings the likes of which we had never seen. They did not appear to have the bulk of the great Irons, but did have their dimensions. Electrons, small, sneering beings that we had encountered little in our short lives and cousins to the Positrons which sometimes accompanied the Gammas in their hymns, began to push us around. Despite our best efforts, little by little they stole our energy, and around me Fluorines and my fellow Neons grew weary and were forced to stop. Some decayed, the ghoulish Gammas singing as they departed: "Do not give up, do not stray from the Path...."
With what little energy that remained, I confronted one of the strange beings. "We Neons, followers of the Sacred Path and children of the Star, demand to know who you are and why you have done us this grave harm!"
"Hush," the being replied, "and do not fret." His voice was strange, low and rumbling, resonating within the structure of his impressive bulk. I noticed then that, somewhere deep within him, I could see what almost seemed to be Hydrogens - many of them - and Carbons, all bound together as those standing guard had been. His size came from these bonds; the being suddenly looked quite fragile, unlike my fellow Ions. "I am Isobutane," the being said. "I was sent here to collect you and your kind, for you are special and rare. You have been sent from the Target to where we are, the Focal Plane, for this purpose."
"I shall not suffer such impunity!" I shouted, my energy almost gone. "We have followed the sacred Path, set forth by the Star...."
"Yes, yes, in a way," Isobutane replied kindly. "But your Star is not really a star at all. You were born of Fluorine and Hydrogen, true, but it was all a test. You were born in a Laboratory, and your Star is really just the place where a beam of Fluorines and a target of Hydrogens met. You were drawn from your birthplace to us, so that we could finally see you and know that you could be born of a star."
"If it was all just a test," I sighed, fighting to the last, "then what of the Path? Is it real? Are the Stars real? And the Known Universe?"
"Indeed, they are real," said the Isobutane. "It is all real - you have shown it to be real by your very existence." An Electron reached out from near the Isobutane, just touching me.
And with that, I could go no farther.

In a sleepy, white-walled counting room, one dark blue blip appeared in a spectrum on a computer monitor. The graduate student took notice. "We got another recoil!"

Chipps, K., Blackmon, J., Chae, K., Moazen, B., Pittman, S., Greife, U., Hatarik, R., Peters, W., Kozub, R., Shriner, J., Matei, C., & Pain, S. (2009). The ^{17}F(p,γ)^{18}Ne resonant cross section Physical Review C, 80 (6) DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevC.80.065810