Making An Impact

· science · geek ·

Those of you who follow my ramblings on Twitter as well as on this blog will have witnessed me get very over-excited by an online comic called 2D Goggles, or The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. This elicited high levels of geek squee from me because it combines: a) Ada Lovelace, one of my scientific heroines; b) Charles Babbage (see a), substituting hero for heroine); c) Victorian steampunkery; d) Brunel (swoon); and best of all, e) copious interesting historical notes by the author of the comics, Sydney Padua, following each part, with some fascinating information about Lovelace, Babbage and the whole scientific and engineering ‘scene’ of the 19th Century. And that, my friends, equals a heck of a lot of entertainment on a Saturday morning for a geek of my persuasion.

My attention was particularly caught by a speech that Babbage delivers that I have no doubt was prompted by him being asked, repeatedly, “So, what use is your work, when you get right down to it?”. It turned out that that particular section was an actual quote from Babbage’s 1830 book, Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of its Causes. Babbage, it seems, had as much trouble getting funding for his work as modern scientists, and got very testy with the establishment because of it. As Sydney puts it:

Charles Babbage’s many friends spent a lot of time kicking him in the shins, because every once in a while he seems to have enjoyed setting his career on fire in order to watch the pretty flames. His friend Herschel said he should be ‘slapped in the face’ for Dear Royal Society of Really Important People: You Are All Corrupt Idiots! [the book mentioned above]; I particularly like the dedication- “I was going to dedicate this to some guy but now he’s frantically backpedalling for some reason!”

Oh how we’ve all been tempted by that kind of rant at one time or another… Charles Babbage has always delighted and frustrated me in equal measure because he was obviously a scientific genius and a great inventor, but he could also shoot himself in the foot like no-one else, inadvertantly perpetuating various stereotypes about scientists in the process. For example, he wrote a famous letter to Tennyson, in which he insists that the lines, “Every moment dies a man/Every moment one is born” is mathematically incorrect, and should be substituted with, “Every moment dies a man/Every moment 1 1/16 is born”, adding that 1 1/16 is not strictly accurate, but is “…sufficiently accurate for poetry.” He’s right of course, but — like Herschel — you want to slap him for perpetuating the idea that scientists wouldn’t recognise beauty if it beat them around the head with a slide rule.

Getting back to my point, his speech about the application of mathematics made me think about that dreaded section of grant application forms, the Impact Statement. In recent years, there has been more emphasis on this section, in which you are supposed to demonstrate how your proposed research can contribute to the scientific community, benefit the wider community (i.e. The Public) and generate money or have some other impact on ‘Industry’. I understand why they ask this: it’s public money and they have to try to make sure that it is spent wisely, but while the first two kinds of impact are not too much of a challenge for relatively ‘pure’ science, the last is always a bit of a puzzler.

The temptation is to write, “Once I have developed my super race of flying hyper intelligent cephalopods, equipped with lasers, World Domination will be mine! BWAA-HA-HA-HA…”, but that doesn’t get you funded. Apparently. No, the next time I have to fill in an Impact Statement, I’m tempted to paste in the quotation below from Charles Babbage (with appropriate attribution, of course), and be done with it:

In mathematical science, more than in all others, it happens that truths which are at one period the most abstract, and apparently the most remote from all useful application, become in the next age the bases of profound physical inquiries, and in the succeeding one, perhaps, by proper simplification and reduction to tables, furnish their ready and daily aid to the artist and the sailor.


OK, so you have to subsitute biology for mathematical science, and I’m really not sure of what use my research could possibly be to a sailor, but otherwise, it hits the spot, I think.