on Video game science

I’m beginning to worry that the general public confuses science with the way it’s portrayed in Civilization-style video games.

I was personally first introduced to the genre by the games “Age of Empires” and “Space Empires IV”, two games where the purpose was to build up an empire by using resources on a map to upgrade your forces, build stuff, and defeat the various enemies.  They’re a lot of fun, and the genre is pretty popular, or at least it was once.  One staple of Civilization-style games is the tech tree.  Research this to unlock new buildings, weapons, spaceship hulls, and the like.  Research farming to obtain irrigation, research irrigation to obtain graineries, research crystalline technology to obtain Planetary Defense Lasers.  The way it all works is very simple: You figure out what tech you want (Plasma Cannons, The Wheel, Chicken Korma) and then you allocate Y resources and wait X turns until suddenly you have the ability to stun the enemy with a curry at 10 paces.

That’s not how science actually works, of course.  You don’t dump $1 million on “Cancer Research”, wait 20 months, and have a cure for cancer. There’s nowhere you can go and say “Discover habitable planet” or “Invent Warp Drive”. Of course, it’s not just video games that have given people this impression, it’s also in TV shows, and perpetuated by the tech industry – Intel puts out a new faster chip every year, but it’s actually improvements on established techniques; doing something COMPLETELY new is a lot harder. (As it happens, Intel is about to run into the physical limits of what you can do with silicon chips, and they’ll ACTUALLY need something new to keep things going very soon). But I sneakingly suspect this simple video game view is how people view science. They want to know why we don’t have flying cars (have you SEEN how well people cope with driving in two dimensions?) or why we haven’t been back to the moon (surprisingly, it takes a lot of time and money), and assume that someone is either asleep at the wheel or pulling a massive con on them.

The truth is, research is messy, and there is often no obvious end goal in sight. Most amazing discoveries either happen by accident, and become A Thing because the right person saw them (Penicillin, The Cosmic Microwave Background, Pointing a telescope at the sky rather than your neighbors) at the right time.  Or, if there is a goal in mind, it’s because years of other research have a.) made it possible to make the breakthrough and b.) made it obvious that the breakthrough needed to happen (Vaccines, Einstein’s Theories of Relativity, Computers, Fire [probably*]).  And then there are all the discoveries that were made for other reasons entirely… like Silly Putty (originally a synthetic rubber replacement), Saccharine (originally a coal-tar product), the Internet (originally for communication between universities and government labs, now used for shopping, entertainment, and cat worship), or Viagra (originally developed as a heart medication).  I mention that last one because a few years ago it was used by a British MP as an example of the obvious economically valuable research that the government should be focusing on, even though (as pointed out by the British comedian David Mitchell in a wonderful article that’s not online any more) it failed at what it was supposed to do, and the infamous ED-curing properties that made it so marketable were unintentional.

Of course, for every project that succeeds, or provides the pieces for something to succeed later on, there are countless hundreds of ideas that go nowhere.  We don’t get the luxury of saying “well, that one is going to be a dead end” until we try it.  I don’t think many people are aware of that truth.  Science does not always have an obvious end goal, or a guarantee that it’ll reach there.  The Phlogiston model of thermodynamics is wrong, but it had to be checked out.  Our modern search for dark matter has had plenty of dead ends with MACHOS and many varieties of the so-called WIMPs.  Even when science does turn out to be important, it may serve a higher calling we don’t understand yet. If James Clerk Maxwell tried to justify his experimentation with electricity by explaining that electricity would allow us to talk to spacecraft orbiting Saturn, or to allow people to share a vision of a world where a man in a cape dressed like a bat beats up people, no one would have listened to him.

The net effect of these misunderstandings is a great mistrust of science, and that ends up hurting science (particularly when politicians with control of money start saying them).  It’s going to hurt EVERYONE when we don’t have the immediate fix people expect, or when we can’t give you an exact timetable and monetary cost for The Next Big Thing.  And we’ll all lose when we no longer have all the little pieces necessary to build up to something bigger.  We scientists are not trying to con you, it’s just a necessarily imperfect system.

* While I obviously don’t know, I’m pretty sure our ancestors saw plenty of lightning-induced brushfires on the savannah before they figured out how to control it, that it made meat tasty, or (finally) that they could make it themselves with flint and tinder. I also wonder how that last one related to spear-making…

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