Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Testing, testing...

No, I'm not testing the blog, which is working fine (as far as I know). But my computer has spent the last week testing some of my analysis of white dwarf stars, finally finishing this morning.

Testing your own analysis is hard and incredibly boring. It involves doing the same task over and over and over again under slightly different situations to see how robust your answers are. It involves re-analyzing data by adding a little bit of static noise to see if that changes your answers in the way you expect. And it involves comparing one's own work to those of other people, to see if you get the same answers for the same objects.

And, at the end, chances are we haven't learned anything new about the Universe due to this testing. What we have learned is how accurate our answers are. And this is just as important as learning new things about stars and galaxies. Suppose I were to claim that I discovered a new type of star, and then somebody else were able to show that it was just some spurious noise in a picture, kind of like a "pop" you might get when listening to AM radio or a phonograph record. I would be embarrassed, and others would be less likely to believe my work.

But if I were able to show that the "pop" is 99.95% certain to be real, and then I show all of my tests to prove it, it is both more likely that I am correct (because I understand the possible errors and tested each one), and more likely that people are going to believe me (because my work shows I am a careful scientist).

So, I'll slog on through more testing for the rest of the week. It takes far more time to do this error testing than it does to come up with the results that I am testing. But it is so vital, I'm willing to be bored for a few weeks, especially if it means that, at the end of the day, I get the right answers.

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