Searching for Oslo: a non-hypothesis-driven approach

Note: I will be speaking at a conference on science communication in Oslo in September. This is not the talk I will give there; however, it was inspired by the invitation.

First let me thank the conference organizers for this wonderful event and inviting me to this lovely city. I’ve been to Oslo many times and have always enjoyed it, but I’m not the type of tourist who studies up on a place before he goes. In fact, and this is embarrassing to admit, I’m not even sure exactly where I am. I told one of my kids I was coming to Oslo and she said, “Where exactly is Oslo, anyway?”

“It’s up, and to the left,” I told her.

Actually I didn’t have the slightest idea. I’d never looked it up on a map. I realized that I hardly ever use maps anymore. Almost nobody does. You don’t need to. You just go to the airport on time, go to the right gate, and the airlines and trains take care of the rest. Or you have an iPhone. You tell it where you want to go and it calculates your route, starting with your exact current position. Your iPhone says: “Go out the door. Turn left. Walk 1,213 kilometers. Turn right.”

If you’re going to go looking for something, it’s a good idea to start out with a general idea of its location. In the case of Oslo, it’s helpful to know that it is located in the Milky Way galaxy. It helps more to know it’s in our own solar system, even right here on our planet. It’s hard to calculate the odds of that happening; we’d need to know more about the state of the early universe at 0.00001 seconds after the Big Bang. However Oslo got here on Earth, its location is convenient. If it were anywhere else in the solar system, for example on Mars, we probably wouldn’t know it existed.

Once you have narrowed the search area to Earth, you’re getting close. At that point my knowledge of geography starts to get fuzzy, so you should just stop somebody and ask for directions.

But a little more information can help. I knew Oslo was in Scandinavia, which means you won’t waste a lot of time looking for it in the Pacific Ocean, or South America. I would like to note, here, that Scandinavia is a concept I don’t fully understand. We usually give names to continents, or countries, or hurricanes, or new species. As far as I can tell Scandinavia doesn’t fit into one of those categories, so I’m not sure why it needs a special name. On the other hand, if people want to call themselves Scandinavians, I guess there’s no law against it. At least they picked a nice name. Usually these things are decided in a committee, and you know how committees are. If you let a committee pick the name, Scandinavia would probably be called “Roger”.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a map of Scandinavia, but it’s huge. And there are a lot of blank areas. Many of these appear to be isolated regions that have never been explored. Scandinavia is so large that there could be 10 Oslos hiding out there, and you could spend your whole life looking for them, especially if they didn’t want to be found. Plus, we’re lacking a lot of information that would have been helpful. It is unclear how many groups have gone off searching for Oslo and failed to find it. These were negative results, so they couldn’t get their papers published. In other cases, groups found one Oslo and then broke off the search, never considering that there might be 9 more Oslos out there. So the data may be skewed toward one Oslo that happens to be easiest to find.

Today you should never start any scientific project without an exhaustive search of the literature, for example, by typing “Oslo” into Google. Here you find one fact that can significantly narrow the search area: Oslo is located in Norway. With that piece of information alone you can eliminate 2/3rds of Scandinavia from the search area. So it would only take 0.33333… lifetimes to search the remaining area and find 10 Oslos. The probability of finding only 1 Oslo would be a tenth of that, so you ought to calculate 3.3333… lifetimes. In a grant application, that comes to three full-time positions and one third-time position, probably a technician.

Now I think it’s reasonable to invest that much effort in searching for Oslo, especially since you might find other things while you were at it. Who knows what remains to be discovered in these large, unexplored areas of the country? You might find a species of Archaea that evolved 3 billion years ago in a thermal vent on the ocean floor. It’s a long ways from that deep ocean vent to a valley in Norway, but you can crawl a long way in 3 billion years. Especially if the colony is being driven by a male Archaea, who doesn’t waste time seeing the sights along the way, and keeps the pit stops as short as possible. You might also find the last surviving tribe of Yeti. Or secret UFO landing sites. You should keep your eye out for these things. If you find one of them, you should mention it in your supplemental data.

It’s quite common in science to start looking for one thing and end up finding something else. In fact, sometimes you find things when you aren’t looking for anything particular at all. You know how it is: you come into the lab on a Sunday, just to putter around a bit, and suddenly, lying there in your Petri dish, is the ribosome.

This is the type of science we call non-hypothesis driven research. You grope around in the dark and suddenly your hands grasp onto something. Please don’t think of this as a reference to some sort of sexual activity because it is not. In any case, in non-hypothesis-driven research, you should always be prepared for surprises. You’re out in the field looking for Oslo, or maybe a new species of Archaea, and suddenly you find a Yeti. You’ll never get a Yeti back to the lab in a Petri dish. So when you’re doing non-hypothesis driven research, you should always take along a big net. And some tranquilizer darts.

It’s hard to get funding for this kind of research. When you apply for a grant they always ask what you’re expecting to find. This is kind of silly, because if you already knew, you wouldn’t need their money to find it. So when you’re applying for a grant you just sort of pretend that you don’t know what you’re going to find.

That’s harder to do when you’re trying to get funding for non-hypothesis-driven research. Under the section on “Expected results and impact,” you can’t just write, “I have absolutely no idea.” Instead you should say something like, “We expect to find either a new species of Archaea, the city of Oslo, or a Yeti.” It’s wise not to mention secret UFO landing sites in grant applications.

You work hard to finish the application, send it off, and then you start waiting. You wait for years and years, and you never hear back from the grant commission. The entire system is biased against non-hypothesis-driven research.

But think where we’d be without it. I don’t know who the first person was who discovered Oslo, but he certainly didn’t find it by using a map. Without that bold pioneer, we wouldn’t be here. We’d be somewhere else. Probably in Stockholm.

A novel, non-hypothesis-driven method to determine the location of Oslo

Abstract. Traditional methods of locating large foreign cities involve a time-consuming, manual inspection of maps, sometimes with the aid of a magnifying glass. Recent years have seen the development of automated, high-throughput technologies such as Google Maps. These methods, however, are of limited applicability in cases where you don’t have the right map, or when you are at Starbucks and the Internet server crashes. Here we use Oslo as a model system to develop a novel, non-hypothesis-driven approach for determining the location of any large object on Earth. The method can easily be adapted to find other cities as well as smaller entities, such as new species of Archaea, or Yeti.

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I am a science writer at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, author of fiction and popular science books, an artist, and a professional musician who performs on the viola da gamba and Medieval and Renaissance stringed instruments. I edit manuscripts of all types and teach the full range of scientific communication skills. I am doing theoretical work in this subject - see for example

4 thoughts on “Searching for Oslo: a non-hypothesis-driven approach”

  1. Hello Russ,
    We enjoyed your riff on Kansas this evening at DAI. I don’t recall Kansas being so funny, but then you helped us to look under that rock. Thanks.

    You mentioned a writers group that was going to meet in early Feb. I’d be interested in joining the group, depending on when and where.

    Malcolm Carpenter

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