Patience is one virtue scientists must embrace

There’s a lot of waiting in science. Collecting and interpreting evidence demands skill and commitment, creativity and curiosity — and time. Though Saturn has been known since ancient times, Galileo first observed it with a telescope in 1610. He saw the rings, but didn’t identify them as such. Not until the 1650s did Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens report a flat ring around Saturn. The first mission to Saturn had to wait until 1973, with the launch of Pioneer 11. It took six more years before that craft arrived at Saturn, where it flew through the outer rings.

Fast-forward another several decades, and for the first time ever, a spacecraft is now diving between Saturn and its rings. It’s been more than four centuries since the rings were first observed, and nearly two decades since the spacecraft, Cassini, launched from Cape Canaveral. Later this month, Cassini will enter Saturn’s atmosphere — another first — as part of its final farewell, as described by astronomy writer Lisa Grossman. Another probe probably won’t return to the planet until sometime after 2030.

Budgets, shifting priorities and technological limitations can slow down space missions. And even if everything runs smoothly, the vastness of space introduces its own delays (thank you laws of physics). Data travel from Cassini to Earth at the speed of light, for example, but still take over an hour to arrive. And heavenly bodies swing on the grandest of scales, so astronomers are regularly waiting for the right moments to make their observations — for the sun to set, for instance, or for the moon to block the sun in a total solar eclipse. (Anyone who missed the total eclipse on August 21 will have to wait until 2024 to have another shot in North America.)

But astronomers aren’t alone in their waiting. Microbiologists must wait for cell cultures to grow. Archaeologists count down the days until field season begins. Modelers benefit from boosts in computing power that come only with time, allowing them to capture all kinds of processes in much more detail. The waits might be most acute for researchers hoping to make advances in medicine. They know that waiting for new treatments can be painful, life-altering and even life-ending. Molecular biology writer Tina Hesman Saey describes a milestone in the gene editing of human embryos, one that could ultimately help treat a potentially fatal heart disease. But there’s a long way to go before clinical trials can begin. The same is true for the search for new contraceptives, described by biomedical writer Aimee Cunningham. Many new approaches are still in testing in rodents. And even once a potential drug reaches clinical trials, there’s no guarantee of success. As scientists wait, so too do doctors, their patients and the patients’ families.

Perhaps anyone frustrated by the pace of science can take comfort in the words of physicist Chang Kee Jung. He expects an upcoming detector, DUNE, to offer clues to why matter — the very stuff of our existence — far overweighs antimatter in the universe. The detector won’t be online until well into the 2020s, but Jung encourages patience. “We are dealing with really profound problems,” he says.

Elizabeth Quill is former executive editor of Science News. She's now a freelance editor based in Washington, D.C.

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