Most people like to think of scientists busily, adeptly, and knowledgeably moving liquid from on container to the next. Seeking, pursuing that bit of the unknown. Suddenly, when they have the results they will should out “Eureka!”.
Not true. Most of the scientists I know blunder around the lab poking at things with proverbial sticks going “Well… that’s funny.” We also spend a good bit of time trying to figure out how long “several minutes” is. Really, Mr Protocol? Several minutes? Not less than 5, more than ten… just several minutes between complete success and abject failure due to ethanol contamination? I hate you. (This is actually the thinking that happens on a daily basis in the lab. We try to save up the brilliance.)
Think about the most famous scientific milestones in history- most were an accident. There was no intent, no seeking of potential knowledge. Just someone putzing around in the lab who happened to notice something funny. Granted- the actually knowing what to do with it is also very, very important. But there is still more headbanging than the shouting of “Eureka”. On that I promise.
Think on the discovery of penicillin. That dude likely walked into the lab, was looking through his plates, and his first thought was “Shit. Damn fungus.” (Cause, I know that is usually my sentiment). After banging his head on the desk a few times he looked back at the plates praying the mold was a figment of his imagination. When, after a few proverbial or physical blows to the head, he realized that the bacteria was not growing around the mold. Now this is where the smrts come in (that’s right children, not smarts- smrts)- rather than tossing the plate he realized that this oops could be interesting. I could also be a huge waste of time, which is why he set his minions… I mean assistants, on it. Thus, by never giving up on a screw up (which is what fungal contamination amounts to- a screw up) Dr Flemming got to go down in history because he noticed “oh…that’s funny”. (the actual WORK? Please, that is what minions are for.)
Another major discovery- the double helix. Regardless of what you actually think of Watson and Crick the boys, along with a dirty, rotten, thief, won a Nobel Prize on what was, in essence, a lit review. Get real. The only one what had any data was Wilkins, via Rosalind Franklin. Rosalind was the real brains behind the double helix. Even today her X-ray images of the double helix are considered amazing. Watson and Crick used everyone around them to garner information in order to win a Nobel. Trust me, the boys made plenty of structural mistakes along the way, like forgetting the water. Rosalind should have put something in their coffee when she saw what they were doing. Apparently she is a better person than I, because I would not have taken their intrusion on my unpublished data lying down. Crick and Watson were time and time again told to stop it and get back to the work they were supposed to be doing. But the quest for the Nobel was too much to just stop. The story about the Dark Lady of DNA is a good read, and will again exemplify the idea that it is the study of the abnormal (in Franklin’s case the A structure over the B structure, which is what the boys won the Nobel for) that is often the case for scientific research. If Franklin has pursued the B structure, which is actually the abnormal, yet functional, shape of DNA she might have beaten the boys to it. But she knew that the A structure was more common, and so had to be more important. Oops on her part. She went for the common form, the boys went for “hm, this is weird”, and the rest is fact. A is for storage, B is for function (and Nobel worthy) and Z is just weird.
The normal is too difficult to study. Sorry people. We study he weird, the strange, and most of our experiments should be published in the Journal of Negative Results. That’s right. It’s real. And I totally want an article in there.
And with that I will leave you with my favorite comment heard in the lab: “Well… that was stupid.”
QotD: “Knowledge is power! And it’s light weight.” ~Cody, from “Dual Survival”