How precious scientific discovery really is.

It has been a while since I wrote a blog post to my website. I have several excuses on why I’ve not written lately,

1) I have not had a really good idea to write about,

2) I’ve been really busy teaching. (Most of my students don’t take as many classes as I teach)

3) My health has not been well this last year, I have suffered a broken arm and some bizarre neurological vertigo episodes, and recently the varicella zoster virus decided to play havoc with my body after living dormant in my dorsal root ganglion for thirty-five years.

4) I’m going up for tenure this year, and have been bearing my soul too often enough, and I worry that I might say something that might deny my chance to continue teaching at the university, but it also means that I’m always racing to add all sorts of accolades at the last minute to my documentation.

But despite all those excuses, I figured I would write something new, and perhaps take a break from the crazy hectic nature of my life. And that is where this page takes stage, as a place to think out creative thoughts on science and the nature of discovery on well caffeinated late Friday afternoon.

Despite my busy life, I can occasionally finish out a book or two, and one of my summer reads was Hope Jahren’s book called Lab Girl. I highly recommend the book, and if you don’t have the money to purchase a copy, you can visit her blog, and get a taste of her whimsy and writing style. I’m a science geek, who known Hope Jahren mostly from the research she does on plants, carbon isotopes, and paleoclimate research, but the book is more about what it is like to be a scientist in the modern day. And what the heck scientists do all day for that matter. In the end it portrays science as something not particularly fun nor glorifying. But a job.

Science today is 90% begging people for money to do science, 5% presenting the science you do get funding for and 5% teaching other people what you already know. While you outsource the “doing science” itself to students or lab assistants, and so in the end it can seem that science is no longer a creative endeavor.

But there is one part in the book that Hope Jahren touches upon that struck me as the reason we do science in this modern day age of excessive information: when we make a new discovery.

In her book she describes how she discovered the chemistry behind the Celtis seed’s perseverance in the rock record. She discoveried that the seeds are made of silica (opal). It is not a major discovery, but a small one (the chemistry behind a seed), but it was her own discovery, her own addition to the great knowledge out there on plants that exists.

This got me thinking about how precious scientific discovery really is. In an age where my students google every question, and knowledge is won by simply asking Siri on your phone, the notion of where that knowledge came from is lost in the ease for which it is freely available on the internet.

But new knowledge is more precious than ever, and each new discovery, even something tiny adds to the multiples of previous aggregated knowledge. Discovery is made in the details, in the chemistry of seeds, or tiny fossils in museum cabinets. The discoveries don’t overturn well established theories nor do they make the pages of newspapers (or Facebook feeds), but add to the evidence of well-worn questions and responses. Hidden in rarely read academic texts.

The nature of scientific discovery is not in the glitz and glamour of outrageous claims, or the crass political discourses on social media, nor debated in a court room. They are verified and measured, verified and measured in the tense boring language of science.

But there is something magically, when you can add a small piece to the body of knowledge out there, and we should take a mindful moment as scientists to sit back and enjoy and treasure those moments of discovery.