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Feet on the Ground, but Reaching for the Stars?

Once upon a time, we all dreamed of being that scientist – the one who would discover quantum gravity, or solve string theory, or find aliens.  But then we grew up and realized what science is really like.

Or did we?

Often, there is a tradeoff between how interesting your research is and how likely your research is to succeed.  Sometimes, you want to do the safe, “low-hanging fruit”-type project because hey, everybody needs to publish.  (As discussed in a recent astrobite, perhaps a parallel to a credit-rating agency could establish the risks and potential rewards of various fields.)  But if we always stick to the straight and narrow, how do we ever make paradigm-shifting discoveries?  Sometimes, we need to take a chance.  Ideally, a scientist will do a mix of safe, productive work and a few big risks over the course of her career.  But how do we make the tough call about when to cash in our chips versus playing the big hand?

Jorge Cham expresses the fate we all fear: of never doing the research our hearts desire because we put practical considerations first.

Although the answer might have something to do with tenure (or, as the figure above suggests, there might never be a magic career level that legitimizes your dream research project), deciding when to go for a long shot is a deeply personal and philosophical decision.  Geoff Marcy (disclaimer: my advisor) was recently interviewed in New Scientist (Slate republished the interview) about his new role as the Berkeley Chair of SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.  Although Geoff might be the “Usain Bolt” of planet hunting, according to New Scientist, he has been awarded a position to join an area of research that is less promising but potentially even more rewarding — alien hunting.

“I’m in this lucky position that my career has been more successful than I could have ever imagined. It’s time for me to roll the dice, try something that’s a long shot. Younger scientists can’t put their eggs in that basket…But I have the luxury.” –Geoff Marcy, in an interview with New Scientist.

Geoff will search for laser signatures from other civilizations.  He points out that we Earthling astronomers regularly beam lasers at stars to measure atmospheric turbulence in adaptive optics.  Alien civilizations that have developed astronomy to the same technological standard as we have would probably also use adaptive optics, so there’s a chance that they are pointing lasers right at us.

Another possibility is to eavesdrop on alien laser communication.  In a planetary system with multiple inhabited worlds, the inhabitants might communicate with each other by shooting laser pulses back and forth.  (As Geoff points out, they won’t be able to string fiber-optic cables between planets.)  When two communicating planets are aligned with Earth (assuming their orbits allow such an alignment), the laser beam points at us as well.  Thus, if the laser beam’s cross section is wide enough to slip past the inhabited alien planet, we might be able to collect the dregs of the signal.

But is either scenario likely?  While Geoff considers this work an “even longer long shot” than his initial planet hunting (which many scientists believed was bound to fail), he is eager to take on the challenge:

“I’m in this lucky position that my career has been more successful than I could have ever imagined. It’s time for me to roll the dice, try something that’s a long shot. Younger scientists can’t put their eggs in that basket, because if you spend your time on SETI, your chances of success are low. But I have the luxury.” –Geoff Marcy, in an interview with New Scientist.

But who has “the luxury” to dream big?  I interviewed Geoff Marcy (see the video below) about his new job and asked him how he advises undergraduates to balance their big science goals with realistic projects.  His advice is to weigh your options and find the balance that makes you happy; it’s your life.

My favorite takeaway from our conversation was that whether we move step by careful step or in precipitous leaps and bounds, every scientific contribution matters.  Each discovery, great or small, shapes humanity’s understanding of the universe.  In Geoff’s words, so long as we are doing good science, “We are all here making a difference for humanity, which hopefully will help the next generation.”

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Lauren Weiss

A Planet Hunter and midnight playwright, Lauren is a graduate student at UC Berkeley. She works with Geoff Marcy to characterize exoplanets. After graduating from Harvard, Lauren received her MPhil degree from Cambridge, where she hosted an astronomy podcast called the Astropod ( in 2011. Her greatest desire for the coming era of astronomy is that we will find Yoda on another planet.


One Response to “Feet on the Ground, but Reaching for the Stars?”

  1. Another person who holds interesting opinions about always “picking the low hanging fruit” is Avi Loeb at Harvard CfA. You can read them in a couple of arXiv articles that have appeared over the last few years.

    Taking “The Road Not Taken”: On the Benefits of Diversifying Your Academic Portfolio (1008.1586)
    Rating Growth of Scientific Knowledge and Risk from Theory Bubbles (1108.5282)
    How to Nurture Scientific Discoveries Despite Their Unpredictable Nature (1207.3812)

    Posted by Warrick | July 19, 2012, 8:50 am

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