I still recall the thrill of giving a technical talk at an AAPG annual meeting. It was in Salt Lake City in 1998, and there was a special session on oil and gas discoveries in impact craters. My 1995 thesis at the University of South Carolina was on the petroleum system in the Ames crater in Major County, Oklahoma.
I thought I’d reached the big time.
Unfortunately, impact structures never really emerged as a significant oil and gas play. But I’m happy I had the chance to present my scientific work. And I’d urge you to present yours.
In Denver this month at the Annual Convention and Exhibition we had geoscientists gathering from across the globe to do just that: to stand up in front of their peers and present their scientific work, ideas and theories. In some cases the speakers were world-renowned in their fields. In other cases they were freshly minted graduates, presenting their thesis or dissertation research.
All of these speakers are important to the science and the profession. And this scientific engagement is at the heart of why AAPG exists: to advance the petroleum geosciences by presenting data, testing theories and teaching each other as we go.
When we stop doing this, our science dies.
I was thinking about this issue last month while reading a May 15 New York Times op-ed by Leonard Mlodinow, a physicist and author, titled “It Is, In Fact, Rocket Science.” In his piece he reflects on the nature of scientific discovery – and a dangerous misconception that threatens to undermine it.
The myth, he explains, is that scientific discovery rarely occurs through epiphany the way popular culture would have us believe.
His teenage daughter’s biology textbook suggests that Charles Darwin formulated his theory of evolution while watching finches on the Galapagos Islands. In fact, the theory emerged many years later, back at home.
And the apple hitting Sir Isaac Newton’s skull may have caused him to see stars, but it didn’t spark a theory of gravity.
“The story vulgarizes universal gravitation by treating it as a bright idea,” he quotes historian Richard Westfall. “A bright idea cannot shape a scientific tradition.”
The reality is, Mlodinow writes, “Science is just not that simple and it is not that easy.”
“The mythical stories we tell about our heroes are always more romantic and often more palatable than the truth,” he warns. “But in science, at least, they are destructive, in that they promote false conceptions of the evolution of scientific thought.”
And Stephen Hawking’s understanding of the nature of black holes was not gained by staring at the glowing embers of a fire, as depicted in the film, “The Theory of Everything.” In fact, it was inspired by two other physicists whose work he had seen, followed by months of grueling calculations arriving at an outcome that Hawking didn’t like. So, he then spent more months attacking his own theory, trying to disprove it. But he couldn’t.
And the result was a paradigm shift in our understanding of black holes.
Hawking is a brilliant mind. But look at this story again:
- He applied his intellect to build on work of others.
- He had his own ideas, but was open to having those ideas proved wrong.
- His process of discovery was one of focus, concentration and doing the work.
This age of instant gratification can easily seduce us to sit around waiting for the muse. Surely, I’ll have a brilliant insight soon.
But, as Mlodinow suggests, we may be sitting for a long time. Epiphany as strategy works best in myth.
I don’t want to completely dismiss the role of flashes of insight. But to borrow an old saw, we may miss scientific discoveries because they’re dressed in overalls and disguised as hard work.
“The truths of nature are subtle, and require deep and careful thought,” Mlodinow observes.
That’s good news for you and me as geoscientists: Doing the hard work will increase our odds of having something important to say.