The Myth­mak­ers

Science Illustrated - - EDITORIAL - An­thony Ford­ham aford­[email protected]­media.com.au

Never spoil a good yarn with the truth. This is the Aus­tralian ver­sion of a say­ing that prob­a­bly most hu­man cul­tures have come up with at some point or an­other. And it speaks to a cu­ri­ous as­pect of our brains: we pre­fer a good yarn to the ab­so­lute truth. Un­less the truth is, in it­self, a good yarn.

Be­fore the emer­gence of the first global sci­en­tific com­mu­nity in the 16th c en­tury (well, con­ti­nen­tal I guess, it was mostly just Eur ope, though some data did fil­ter back and forth across the fron­tier with the Is­lamic world), hu­man cul­tures loved mak­ing up new myths and leg­ends.

Myth is dif­fer­ent to re­li­gious scrip­ture be­cause there’s an understanding that while the events that take place in the myth may not have ac­tu­ally hap­pened, the story the myth tells speaks to a deeper truth. Myths were what we used to un­der­stand the world around us.

Sci­ence has since stepped into that role, but - to use an­other old ex­pres­sion - old habits die hard. We still wanted good sto­ries, sto­ries with strong mythic struc­tures. The bad guy is un­am­bigu­ously bad. The good guy wins. The ex­pla­na­tion for the strange phe­nom­e­non was neat and left no loose ends and didn’t open up even more ques­tions...

Sci­ence, un­for­tu­nately, has lit­tle re­gard for po­etic li­cense, or the three-act struc­ture, or even aes­thetic bal­ance. Many of the “sto­ries” sci­ence told us, es­pe­cially in the early days, had the same end­ing: “...and so, un­til we can get more data, we just don’t know.”

Per­haps it’s not sur­pris­ing at all that sci­ence falls vic­tim to so many tweaks-of-the-truth. Af­ter all, that’s what po­etic li­cense is, isn’t it? When an artist in­tro­duces a lit­tle, shall we say, creativity into some­thing, to make it a bet­ter story.

This is­sue is all about cor­rect­ing some of those, um, po­etic mis­un­der­stand­ings. The real facts are of­ten less pleas­ing, and some­times more te­diously com­pli­cated. And some­times, fas­ci­nat­ing.

Not in­cluded in our top 10 is my per­sonal favourite myth. Per­haps you’ve heard it. The story goes like this:

“When NASA dis­cov­ered that ball­point pens don’t work in zero grav­ity, they spent a mil­lion dol­lars de­sign­ing a pen that could write in space. The Rus­sians used a pen­cil.”

Leav­ing aside the mis­use of the term “zero grav­ity”, this lit­tle myth feels so true be­cause we know the Amer­i­cans spent bil­lions on a hugely com­plex space pro­gram, while the USSR had to be fru­gal and ef­fi­cient, right?

If only were that sim­ple. The re­al­ity of this myth could take up an en­tire six-page fea­ture, but in short: both na­tions were wor­ried about pen­cils in space be­cause wooden pen­cils were a fire risk in the oxy­gen-rich en­vi­ron­ment of a cap­sule, and the graphite in the “lead” could snap off, drift across the cabin, and short out a piece of vi­tal elec­tron­ics. Or jam in some­one’s eye. An Amer­i­can named Paul Fisher no­ticed the prob­lem with pen­cils and in­de­pen­dently - with no government fund­ing - de­vel­oped his now­fa­mous AG-7 “Space Pen”. It used a pres­surised car­tridge for the ink, and a tung­sten-car­bide ball in the nib, and worked in a wide range of tem­per­a­tures and cabin pres­sures.

NASA said thanks so much for spend a mil­lion bucks of your own money de­vel­op­ing this, we’ll take about 400 of them at $6.00 each. Granted that’s in 1960s dol­lars, but still...

Not that Paul Fisher com­plained. You might recog­nise his brand: Fisher Pen. By the time of his death in 2006, he’d sold mil­lions of the things.

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