Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Case for Science

By now, some of you must have heard of this case, in which a doctor experimenting with leukemia patients may have accidentally discovered a cure for AIDs.

Now, the language I've chosen there was deliberately optimistic to the point of foolishness - there's no reason (yet) to conclude that this is anything other than a fluke, or that the principle established here can be harnessed in a practical way. It seems fairly likely that AIDs will be with us for a while.

However, this serves to illustrate perhaps the most fundamental law of science: "One sometimes finds what one is not looking for."

Don't recognize that quote? It's from Sir Alexander Fleming, who accidentally discovered penicillin in what may be the greatest medical breakthrough of all time.

Electrical current? Luigi Galvani, playing with frogs. X-Rays? William Roentgen, playing with cathodes. Vaccination? Louis Pasteur, playing with chickens. All revolutionary; all accidental.

What's my point? My point is that a year before each of these discoveries was made, none of these scientists could have stood before a Congressman, hat in hand, and said "Well, you see, Mr. Congressman, there's a good chance I'll make bacterial infections a thing of the past." "It's entirely possible I will render all our most serious pathogens harmless." "Odds are solid that there won't be an Industrial Revolution without me." The average scientist, if forced to give a one-sentence prediction of what his or her study will produce, won't manage anything better than: jumpier frogs. Dead chickens. The Higgs boson.

These discoveries are only revolutionary in retrospect - at the time, it seemed like ordinary men were doing workaday science with middling results. Every year, tens of thousands of studies just like the ones I've mentioned conclude uneventfully, contribute some minor detail to the body of human knowledge, and retire to the archives forever. All studies aren't immediately interesting; all knowledge isn't useful right now.

But it's knowledge. You get it because it's there. You discover it because you can. You learn everything that's out there because none of it is meaningless and some of it might even change the world. You play with mold, you might cure syphilis. You play with marrow, you might cure AIDs. You won't know until you try.

I guess what I'm saying is that whenever we go through a list of studies and grants with a red pen and say "What? $200,000 for bread mold? That's a mistake," we might be firing the next Alexander Fleming. Now, we might not; obviously we have to draw a line, and practicality must rear its ugly head. But nothing was ever discovered by people who said, there's nothing out here. Let's go home.

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