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Read Together: The Scientific Discovery Edition

I haven’t posted a “Read Together” short ebook pairing in a long time. I am surprised to discover that these pairings are harder to find than the “Taster Flights” I’ve been posting. But I have a new pairing for you, and it is one I can’t believe I didn’t recognize earlier.

Both of the books focus on an unexpected result from space exploration. In the non-fiction book The Pioneer Detectives, it turns out to be something we could explain with our existing knowledge. In the fiction book The Best We Can, it is unambiguous evidence of extraterrestial intelligence. What made me decide to pair them, though, is the fact that in both stories, the discovery- or potential discovery- causes quite a stir in a specific segment of the scientific world, but doesn’t change much else.

Having done some scientific research myself (although in a field far removed from astronomy), the description of the excitement in The Pioneer Detectives really rung true: I remember how excited I was when I discovered an unexpected thing about one particular mutant of a protein whose main claim to fame is that… actually, I don’t know that it can be said to have a claim to fame. But it was my protein, and my mutant of it (I had designed it), and the results I had showed the mutant had an effect beyond what I expected but along the lines I had been aiming to create. I was thrilled, in the most literal sense of the word. I can only imagine how exciting it would be to think that you perhaps had evidence of some entirely new physics.

Given that, you might think that I would find the reaction to the discovery in The Best We Can implausible. In fact, I find it completely plausible, and that’s one of the reasons I love that book so much. Even the most momentous scientific discoveries don’t necessarily translate into immediate changes in everyday life. I see this clearly whenever there is some huge breakthrough in biology that people think will “cure cancer” or something like that. Maybe, and maybe not. And even if it does, the initial breakthrough that gets all the press (or doesn’t) may happen decades before the new knowledge eventually results in a new drug. That is just how science, and the world is.

So, if you’ve ever wondered what it is like to do research, read these two books together and you’ll get a fairly good sense. And if you’re a scientist, read these two books together and nod in recognition- then pass them on to your non-scientist friends who ask you why you’re spending your summer studying slime mold.*

*An actual question I heard in college.

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