The impossibility of improving diffraction data: a tale of a field stuck in a chicken-and-egg problem

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[based on a true story]

I am reminded of the time I barged in at a powder diffraction beamline, full of hopes and dreams. This was around the time we had thoroughly demonstrated the power of the modular data correction approach, ostensibly applicable for both small and wide-angle scattering (and therefore also diffraction).

My hope was to get the diffraction beamline to install a beam stop diode monitor in their luxuriously dimensioned beam stop, so we could start doing the same corrections there. That should make it possible to deliver some sweet powder diffraction data: background subtracted, on absolute scale, with uncertainties. The goal of universally good data was within reach, until…

“Not so fast, you young whippersnapper!” said my beamline contact (I’m paraphrasing). “there are three problems with that heresy you propose”, they hinted. “Firstly, the software used for the analysis wouldn’t be able to deal with your pretty data, doesn’t know what to do with uncertainties or any of that other fancy stuff”.

“Secondly”, they continued, not letting me recover from my astonishment for even a moment, “the users aren’t asking for it, so why should I do something else than I’m already doing?”, they queried. I had to bite my tongue to prevent a snide “you’ve always done it like this, and it’s always been shit?” from escaping my mouth.

“So,” their soliloquy ended, “if there is no demand on the user side, and no purpose on the software side, why should I spend any of the time I don’t have to spare on implementing this”?

They had a point. They are stuck in a catch-22, at least for as long as nobody is driven to make the first step without an external impetus. A whole field, users, software writers, experimentalists, just waiting for something or someone to disturb the status quo.

I turned, hightailed it out of there, and spent some time outside the hall to mull over this synchrotron curiosity I just witnessed, staring into the conveniently timed sunset. Advanced technology awaited within, yet used so conservatively, exclusively within the confines dictated by tradition.

Now this was a few years ago, and I am not sure something happened in the mean time (If it has, please do contact me to let me know). I also have no idea whether the data corrections make sense, though for the last years they have given us reliable results on our instruments in wide angles too. We see beautifully peaky peaks in wide angles with nary a noise, error bars staring at me accusingly, wondering why I haven’t been able to exploit their value.

Still stuck. Nobody move.