The Unheralded Power of Observation

Oblivious to my need to keep to my unrealistic schedule, Max, then 3, asked, as I was rushing him out of the car and into school, "Is that the parallax effect?"

“What are you talking about Max?” I responded, hurrying him into the classroom.
“The moon stays in the same place, even when we’re driving.”
I was watching the clock the entire drive. My son was watching the moon.

Children observe. They take it all in. So many things about the world are new to them.

By the time these children reach adulthood, however, they’ve learned to filter almost everything out. This is too bad, because what makes for a good scientist is to hold onto that ability to observe the world, well into adulthood.

Though Rutherford received the Nobel Prize in 1908 for his discovery of the radioactive emission of alpha and beta particles, his interest lay in the effects these particles caused. And in order to study this, he had to first figure out how many particles were given off by his uranium sample. So he and his assistant, Hans Geiger, counted. They had found out earlier that a screen coated with zinc sulfide emitted a flash of green light every time it was hit by an alpha particle. So they counted the number of flashes of light.

This was no easy task, and rumor has it that Geiger did most of the counting. With such an arduous task, the two of them sought any way to simplify the process. They soon realized that the beam of alpha particles would scatter more when covered by a thin piece of foil, making the tiny flashes of green light easier to detect and, therefore, easier to count. They prepared the thinnest piece of foil they could, gold foil, approximately 0.004 mm thick and measured the angle of scattering of the alpha particles.

This worked, and the tiny green flashes of light were easier to count. But if these particles could be scattered at an even larger angle, it would work even better -- and be a little easier on Geiger's eyes. Rutherford posed a side project to one of his research students, Ernest Marsden, to see if he could diffract the particles through an even larger angle. Marsden rose to the challenge and was able to deflect one out of approximately every 20,000 particles at a larger than 90 degree angle.

More than 90 degrees? This was impossible. Or was it? Rutherford, in describing the results years later, remarked: “It was almost as incredible as if you fired a 15-inch shell at a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you."

Rutherford published his findings a few years later, attributing the large diffraction of only a few particles to the presence of an infinitesimally small, dense and positive center in each atom, known as its nucleus. To this day, we have yet to see an atom, let alone its nucleus. But from the consistent day-to-day observations of a handful of scientists, we have a good understanding of this black box that is the essential ingredient of all matter.

Observation is tedious. It takes time. And patience. Many of the traits that working parents and teachers with state-mandated pacing guides have very little of. Though it’s a trait we each are born with. And it’s a skill our children have mastered.

Roald Hoffmann, recipient of the 1981 Nobel Prize in chemistry, was born in 1937 to Jewish parents in Złoczów, Poland. Soon after Germany invaded Poland, he and his family were interred at a labor camp, from which he, his mother, an aunt and two uncles bribed a guard to escape. From there, they hid in the attic of a Ukrainian neighbor for a year-and-a-half. Hoffmann’s father remained behind in the camp, highly valued in his capacity as civil engineer, until he was eventually tortured and killed. Five years after the war, at the age of 11, he and his family immigrated to the United States. He describes his first years in American school:

When you're an immigrant and you don't know the language well -- English was my 6th language when we came to the United States -- I had studied it the year before in a class, but I really didn't know it. I think English opened up for me with a Tarzan comic book on a boat coming to the United States. The immigrant experience, when you don't know the language, I was ahead in math, and so you're an outsider. You stand out and you very quickly learn the language. You can see that among immigrant children. But you stand outside and you watch. You watch trying out to figure out what are the niceties or regularities of behavior among students with respect to each other. It sounds much more formal than what it is. You want to fit in, so you watch, you observe and you know, there's something about watching and observing and not knowing the language that's a little bit like science. Now if you put that in the context of watching and observing nature, just watching from outside, I don't want to push the analogy too far, but to me it's a little bit of what has led many immigrants into science. And you can see this in other ways. They first go into science. It's usually also because the mathematics is what is cross-cultural, and that they bring where they're ahead to that group. And so it's natural that they utilize that. So I think the immigrant experience, being an outsider, is actually helpful.”

Another example is Galileo, who night after night, month after month, observed and sketched the moon. Only through such precision and persistence did he discover that the moon was not a perfect sphere as his contemporaries believed, but a landscape replete with mountains, valleys and craters. When he turned his telescope to Jupiter, he came to realize that the stars he observed weren’t stars at all, but moons -- moons that revolved around Jupiter just like our moon revolved around Earth. And he found support for Copernicus’ theory that, rather than the Sun revolving around the Earth, the Earth and all other planets revolved around the Sun.

In an era of instant gratification and measurable outcomes, observation for observation’s sake and science for science’s sake are difficult selling points. We value only what we can measure. Hence, we test our children for measurable educational outcomes when the most important outcomes of a good education are immeasurable. And we defund NASA because we are unable to assess the value of what we learn today on the technology of tomorrow.

We are so conditioned to observe in order to act, to listen in order to respond.

Great scientists, however, observe in order to see. And listen in order to hear.

In her 2011 blog post in Scientific American about physicist and Manhattan Project alum Robert Wilson, Jennifer Ouellette recalled his 1969 testimony before the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy about whether to fund a new particle accelerator in Batavia, Illinois.

Then-senator John Pastore asked, "Is there anything connected with the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?"

Wilson responded: "No sir, I don't believe so."

Senator: "Nothing at all?"

Wilson: "Nothing at all."

Pastore: "It has no value in that respect?"

Wilson: "It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of man, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending."

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