Friday 20 April 2012

Collaboration and Communion

By Adam Hincks, S.J.

And from my pillow, looking forth by light
Of moon or favouring stars, I could behold
The antechapel where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face,
The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.

A research group I work with, the Atacama Cosmology Telescope (ACT) collaboration, has recently published a couple of exciting papers. In one of them, we demonstrated the first-ever detection of the average motion of distant galaxy clusters using the afterglow of the Big Bang as a back-light. A few months earlier, we reported our discovery of an abnormally large, very ancient cluster of galaxies.  Perhaps because the catchy name we gave it―El Gordo―our announcement was picked up by not a few news agencies (BBC, CBC, NPR, CNN).

Something I find notable about these papers is the long list of authors: twenty-seven from fifteen institutions on the first, and fifty-eight from thirty institutions on the second (including our colleagues from the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey). The very first paper of scientific results that our collaboration released three years ago had no fewer than seventy-two authors, representing the large number of researchers that had contributed to the project's development since its inception in 2004.

This is a great example of collaboration in science. The romantic image of the solitary scientist, as wonderfully captured as it may be in Wordsworth's verses, is a distortion of how real scientific progress is made.  Most scientists are constantly talking, writing and discussing amongst themselves. Even giants like Newton and Einstein, who, it is true, did much of their pioneering work in relative isolation, still benefited from at least some communication with―and criticism from―their peers. But today more than ever, this is the exception rather than the rule. Physics is an experimental science at heart, and as experiments become more intricate, more and more people need to pull together. I spent five years working on ACT in the field and in the laboratory, and I still couldn't pretend to understand every single aspect of it inside-out. In short, the fruits of the research that my colleagues and I have published in our papers above could not possibly have been produced by one person.

There is an obvious parallel in the spiritual life. Spiritual progress, like scientific progress, doesn't really happen in isolation. We need the insights, prayers, encouragement and challenges of others. Works of mercy and charity are far more effective if done in concert. Our worship together on the Lord's Day is not merely a social gathering, but a manifestation of the Church's corporate reality. We are one, pilgrim Church, and Christ continues to call for his Bride to come to him intact.

(Postscript: The Prelude is not to be avoided because I have criticised the sentiment in a short excerpt. Please do not go through life without having read it.)

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