A comic about the real scientific process

Made by scientist Paul Vallett for his Electron Cafe blog, this funny cartoon is essentially about the differences between how science happens in the movies, and how science happens in real life.

On the one hand, I like it a lot, because the speed and ease of movie science does lead people to expect major breakthroughs to happen quickly, and makes them less critical of the sort of PR and journalism that tries to paint every new paper as a game-changer. In fact, you could probably make a case for movie science being one of the drivers that helps to create that bad PR and journalism to begin with. If decades of film and television have trained people to expect easy "Eureka!" moments, maybe they're likely to have less interest in nuanced results, or the fact that not all published science is correct. Unrealistic expectations matter.

On the other hand, well-done fiction is bound by reasonable constraints. There's not time for a "and then they do real science" montage in every movie. To a certain extent, I think this particular complaint might be a bit like wondering why nobody in Star Wars ever stops to pee.

Via JA Tetro


  1. This flowchart also could describe the highs and low of writing a patent application. Of particular FFFFFFFFFFUUUUUUUU is the discovery of prior art that forces you to ‘rediscover’ what is truly novel about *your* idea.

    1. Me, too. There has been so much FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFUUUUUUUU in my Ph.D, and I secretly thought I was doing it wrong. Now I really do feel better. Except I still need to graduate.

  2. Hmm the movie Real Genius did pretty well with their “and then they do real science” montage – partial successes, partial failures, catastrophic failures, edge of giving up, and inspiration were you would have least suspected it.  After all these years, still holds up, IMHO.

    1. And then they pop popcorn with a 5MW laser… Pushes a roof off the walls, breaks glass, and not a burnt piece in the whole pile. Then the neighborhood comes and plays in/eats the glass and debris filled popcorn, and William Atherton gets his come-uppance.

      Still one of my favs though. The Frito-Lay contest winnings still cracks me up.

  3. Awesome!  I guess I should start taking cartoon templates off of 4chan’s /b/ channel and adding real life things to them and posting them to gets lots of hits form boing boing readers, etc. is cool?  I’m in!

  4. Interesting, but I think the “Reality” side unrealistically shows all scientific work as going though a “Results not as expected/WTF is going on?” stage.

    In actual science, I think plenty of results are exactly what the researchers expected.

    Thinking of some of the science that has been showcased here on BB in the past month: populations of organisms evolve to adapt to live in New York (if the researchers didn’t expect this, why were they hunting and measuring organisms in NYC?); People’s brain light up when presented with an uncanny-valley mismatch between expectations and reality (if they didn’t expect this, why were they hooking people up to MRIs and having them look at uncanny valley videos?); in a study of selective attention, 2/3 of the subjects completely failed to notice a fight in the park because they were too busy paying attention to how many times the jogger in front of them touched his hat (well why would they do this study if they didn’t expect exactly that?).

    Much of the time, studies are entirely-predictable follow-ups to other, similar studies. The last study there, of course, is similar to numerous other studies on attention, like the gorilla in the basketball game.

    And then, of course, there’s the problem that has been much documented recently of how researcher bias and expectation tends to influence results — naturally in the direction of the expected result.

    If all science was like in the cartoon, it would be great! Each new article published would contain new, surprising results. In the real world, though, a great many of them contain results that could have been predicted before hand.

    1. engineering != science

      One of the points of science is that you really don’t know how it is going to turn out. If you did, then it would be engineering, filling in the practical details of what is already known.

      Publishing is an option at any of the steps in the above diagram.  Whether or not it is a good idea is a separate question.

  5. So very true. This also works for some non science related work. Hell it’s my creative process making comics or writing a story. 

    Shared, printed and posted on my wall. Thanks.

  6. OK, the bottom showed about 20% of what goes on. The remaining 80% is figuring out how to communicate it to others in a way that (1) makes sense, (2) impresses the right people to get it published in a high-profile journal, (3) gets your grants renewed/approved. 

    Lots of politics in steps (2) and (3)… And then you’ll find that everyone ignores it till the guy at the high profile university re-does it, maybe even cites your old paper, but somehow he still gets to take credit for your good idea. And he gets all his grants funded and yours don’t. The End.

    1. And this is exactly why we can’t trust a word they say. This is their motivation. I would never trust a “scientist” who is forced to compete in a subjectivist manner for the attention of faux-nobility. There is no scientific merit in it and the fact that any scientist thinks this situation is okay only proves the person is clueless about REALITY.

  7. Okay, I was going to be more sarcastic, but…

    I’m just pretty sure most everybody already understands that people have “job frustrations”.  So I’m going to assume that this is not meant to demean non-scientists, which it does on its face.  Given that, this illustration just perpetuates the idea that scientists are in fact elitist and myopic, thinking “nobody understands my frustrations” and so forth.

    So this illustration is actually demeaning to scientists.  Many of whom, I am sure, totally understand that other people understand that everyone, including scientists, face frustrations.

      1. Science is nothing more or less than the art of observation.  It’s actually incredibly easy.  Sir Issac Newton gained fame for noticing that things tend to fall when dropped.  Engineering, on the other hand, is hard.  Discovering electricity was easy.  Building a motherboard is hard.

        1. And I suppose quantum mechanics is just a walk in the park.

          Science is not “nothing more or less than the art of observation”. To be sure, that is essential, but coming up with a theory whose predictions are consistent with the observations is not a walk in the park, specially when it is in serious conflict with the current, accepted theory. Can you spell “Einstein”? See, I knew you could! Now try “Copernicus”.

          Observations without a theory about them is just a table of numbers like those in the CRC Handbook.

  8. I think this is missing the most important part: “Discover something completely unrelated to what you were looking for.”

  9. He left out the part where it doesn’t work, but you fake your data and publish anyway.

    Of course that’s not really science, but it happens all the time.

  10. Why is it OK to simply copy the cartoon here? Half the people in the thread don’t even seem to notice that SOMEONE ELSE created it

  11. Derrrr isn’t this true about… pretty much everything? I don’t watch movies to learn how to do science or how to pilot a helicopter or how to do write a book or how to do ANYthing really. I want to be entertained. And the grueling day-to-day work doing ANYthing significant, including science, is dull, boring and not at all entertaining. That’s WHY WE GO TO MOVIES. damn. someone needs to draw a cartoon explaining to scientists what movies are for, apparently.

  12. This comic is awesome, but it reflects the assumption that the goal “doing science” is to get published (and thus earn a PhD, tenure, prestige, etc.). If the goal is something else – say, “find a vaccine for this disease that’s killing people” – and it turns that the answer was discovered 50 years ago, I hope the reaction would be something other than FFFFFFFFUUUUUU-

  13. You forgot the part after thinking about publishing where the journal’s peer reviewer’s teaching assistant’s undergrad student working for extra credit pepper’s your paper with irrelevant questions and corrections, and gets it rejected.

  14. I find it amusing when people denigrate science.  For all its flaws, science has told us more about reality than anything else we’ve tried and heaven knows it evolves, painfully, and in spite of ourselves.  Could it be better?  Of course it could, but then again we should be amazed that we’ve advanced at all, let alone advanced as far as we have.

  15. Paul Vallett, if you’re reading these comments: Please make this into a poster or a T-shirt. I think pretty good sales are guaranteed, I’ll definitely buy one. I’d prefer a poster.

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