Da Vinci, Copernicus and the Astronomical Procrastination of
Why Tomorrow's Discoveries Aren't Here Today
Posted February 3, 2012
From the beginning, science and procrastination have been intertwined. Consider Leonardo Da Vinci. Five hundred years ago, he designed or sketched the submarine, the helicopter, and the armored tank as well as more everyday inventions such as the alarm clock, the snorkel, and the robot. In science, he made significant contributions to dozens of fields, from astronomy to anatomy, and developed a rudimentary version of today's basic scientific method. His artistic endeavors are equally as notable. His paintings are renowned for their intrigue and beauty, with The Last Supper and The Mona Lisa as two of the most recognizable works of art in the world.
Unfortunately, Da Vinci's genius was tempered by procrastination. He never took the time to publish his findings. From the evidence of the notebooks that survive, if even a fraction of Da Vinci's discoveries or insights had made it into the public domain when he was alive, science could have been advanced by an era (i.e., imagine if we had next century's technology today). It was he who first surmised that "The earth is not in the centre of the Sun's orbit nor at the centre of the universe." As for his art, he only fully finished between five to ten paintings, often requiring a sharp threat by his patrons that they were about to withhold payment. The Mona Lisa took over 15 years for him to finish. Worse was The Virgin of the Rocks, commissioned by the Church of San Francesco Grande with a seven-month deadline. Da Vinci finished it 25 years later. Describing Da Vinci as a distractible, doodling scatterbrain, even Pope Leo X exclaimed "This man will never accomplish anything! He thinks of the end before the beginning." However, the most damning condemnation comes from Da Vinci himself, who apologized on his deathbed "to God and Man for leaving so much undone."
Now consider Leonardo Da Vinci's contemporary, Nicolaus Copernicus, who together are attributed with laying the foundation for modern science and art. Like Da Vinci, Copernicus suffered from the same vice of procrastination. For a decade, Copernicus left unpublished his revolutionary book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, which formally placed the sun at the center of the solar system. If it wasn't for an admiring mathematics professor, Georg Joachim Rheticus, who coaxed him to publish this masterpiece, his book on the sun may never have seen light.
Has anything changed over the better half of a millennia? I received this email from Marco Castellano, an Italian astronomer of the present day.
One of the main duties in our field is submitting "proposals for observations", technical documents through which we ask for observing time at telescopes. Indeed, since telescopes and instruments are very expensive, they are not owned by one institution only but are shared
among various universities, institutes etc.: to obtain observations (i.e. images of the sky at a given wavelength in most cases) we must submit proposals and wait for a panel to select the (few) best ones that will be carried out. Of course we have deadlines within which these proposals have to be submitted, e.g., the end of February for the Hubble Space Telescope, the end of March for the observatories of the European ESO consortium etc.
We all know that these deadlines are fixed and, in principle, we could start preparing proposals months ahead of time and submit them as soon as the "call for proposals" are issued by observatories (30 days before the usual deadline). However, it happens that most, if not all, the proposals are submitted in the last few hours or minutes before the deadline, and a lot of my colleagues spend the last nights at work to finish them! Sometimes proposals are even lost because the web traffic is so huge that we can't submit them, thus losing days (and nights) of work. As an example, this paragraph is written in the last "call for proposals" document of the European Southern Observatory: "Plan ahead! Over past periods, congestion of the proposal submission system has repeatedly occurred in the last few hours before the proposal deadline, leading to delays in response time that occasionally exceeded 1 hour. Try to submit proposals at least one day before the deadline and avoid last-minute stress."
I would venture that it is no different than in any other scientific field. This month, I submitted to the Academy of Management conference a few papers on national culture and national happiness (exciting stuff I hope to share with you soon). Knowing human nature, I stayed up late the night before to get one final paper submitted. Others who waited the day of submission were not so lucky. The crush of last minute applications melted down the conference servers and we will never know what they intended to share. Apparently, studying human nature doesn't necessarily mean rising above it, just as heart surgeons can still have heart attacks.
Finally, if you start assessing the level of procrastination by scholarly profession, which I did, you find that while Economists procrastinate less than Clinical Psychologists, who are in turn better than Sociologists, none of us are that good at being on time. Indeed, the majority of academic colleagues are beyond late in writing their own research papers, included a few of them who are, now more in theory than practice, my co-authors. We have even done research directly upon selves, asking how we can get stuff done, such as Boice's "Procrastination, busyness and bingeing," which was attempt to help new faculty members actually write.
In all, it means that science is progressing somewhat slower than you would expect. For example, the 1982 classic Blade Runner, voted favorite SciFi film by scientists, has genetically engineered organic robots filling the streets by 2019. I don't think it's going to happen on schedule and procrastination is probably to blame. However, there may be a happy ending to all this. Despite centuries of delay, we now do have a solid scientific of why we procrastinate and what to do about it. As these ideas and self-control techniques eventually spread (all handily available in book form), we might get our army of replicants after all. Or, at the very least, perhaps Off-World colonies, attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, and C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate.
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- Adler, R. (2002). Science firsts: From the creation of science to the science of creation. New York: Wiley.
- Boice, R. (1989). Procrastination, busyness and bingeing. Behaviour Research & Therapy, 27(6), 605-611.
- Pannapacker, W. A. (2009). How to procrastinate like Leonardo Da Vinci. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 55(24), B4.