An expression I heard used in the movie "The Right Stuff" in reference to the NASA space program went: “No bucks, no Buck Rogers”. It would seem also the mirror of that statement is true as well: “No Buck Rogers, no bucks.”
Science funding always seems to need the promise of something exciting, and even a little ‘sci-fi’, at the end of the road to keep the dollars flowing. What’s more appealing, the potential of an invisibility cloak or a “planar hyper lens”? Sorry, Congressional committee chairmen are rarely optical engineers.
The result of hype winning out over substance is nothing new and it’s difficult to attribute a particular cause to why it occurs. But Eric Drexler on his blog Metamodern offers not only a possible reason for its habitual occurrence but even a solution.
Drexler highlights the case of an experiment initially reported in the highly regarded journal Nature Chemistry and again in the Washington State University website where the research was described in hyperbolic terms: “WSU Researchers Use Super-high Pressures to Create Super Battery”. Drexler makes short work of this one: “That’s it: a super-compressed material, not a battery, much less a “Super Battery”. If the material is stable at atmospheric pressure (or anything close), I’ll eat it or breathe the fluorine. This stuff couldn’t even be used in a battery.”
Drexler’s criticisms are welcome and, I would add, encouraged. Some more critical commentary on what passes as groundbreaking research is always welcome.
I even like his solution, and given the portmanteau of this blog that should be no surprise. Drexler suggests “progress through griping.” Hear, hear!
Instead what we usually get is a science community conducting its version of the omerta in which scientists live in fear of committing career suicide by criticizing another researchers work. Meanwhile it is appealing for those same scientists to ridicule the hapless journalists who reference a journal that is supposed to be peer reviewed.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.