Here’s a great example of the aesthetic pleasures that well-constructed scientific research can provide.
I was listening to a recent Scientific American podcast this morning, consisting of an interview with the biologist Jerry Coyne, in which Coyne describes a beautiful and subtle piece of research carried out in the 1960s by Professor John Wells (misnamed as “Jonathan” Wells in the podcast), using fossil corals to confirm the slowing of the earth’s rotation over time.
Tidal forces mean that the earth’s rotation is slowing over time, so that the number of hours in each day, and the number of days in each year, are each gradually increasing. As Coyne explains:
…we can actually calculate from the rate of tidal friction how fast the earth is slowing down, make calculations with that.
Wells, an expert in modern and fossil corals, provided a means of confirming this slowing, in what Coyne describes as a “really elegant experiment”:
He looked at fossil corals in which they deposit both daily and annual growth rings, and you can tell by looking at how many daily rings separated an annual ring how many days there were in a year.
These corals had lived 400 million years ago, in the Devonian period. Calculations based on tidal forces showed that a day would have been 22 hours long at that time, rather than 24 hours. Coyne continues:
And then when [Wells] looked at the growth rings of the corals and calculated how long they would have to be to make that many growth rings for a year; it was 21.9 hours, so it was bingo, right on the money.
Now as Coyne points out, this provides compelling evidence that “(a) the earth is really old, (b) it’s been slowing down over time, and (c) these corals lived a long time ago”. But quite apart from the scientific conclusions that can be drawn from it, on a purely aesthetic level this is, as the interviewer says, “a beautiful piece of work”. Quite breathtaking in its elegance.