Life on the (leading) edge

Life on the (leading) edge

Its getting tougher to make a mark in the world of science. And there are several reasons that come to mind.

Firstly, in the mine of knowledge, many are looking for coal on a slag heap. What I mean is, they are looking for discoveries in a field that has already been thoroughly investigated. So unless one can approach that task with some new insight, one isn’t likely to discover anything new. All of the basic building block elements of physics and chemistry seem to have already been discovered, analysed, understood, written about and duly credited to some previous ‘great mind’.

The body of knowledge that now exists is huge, and continues to expand in an exponential manner. For a would-be pioneer of science, even reaching the leading edge of any field of enquiry, now involves a long and hard road of study, and a huge list of choices, each one of which, while channelling one’s efforts into a particular direction, will inevitably exclude many others.

With the growing complexity of the body of scientific knowledge that now exists, the time and effort required to simply learn the skills necessary to even function within a research environment is, itself becoming a life’s work. New and complex equipment is constantly being devised to assist in the process and, I assume, the language of science, like the language of people, must be continually expanding to provide the breadth of vocabulary needed to articulate the full range of current thought. The amount of learning required before a person can hope to contribute some new discovery is, like the body of knowledge itself, constantly expanding.

The technical equipment needed to explore phenomena at the coalface of scientific endeavour is often as complex as the enquiries themselves, meaning that few individuals are likely to have the means to possess it. Ground breaking discoveries are more likely then, to be made by organisations supporting teams of researchers. The likelihood of such discoveries occurring in the privately owned, privately funded home laboratory becomes less and less.

The degree of specialisation in every field, but particularly that of science, and the scale of complexity involved in experimentation at the leading edge of scientific endeavour means that new discoveries of significance are less likely to be made by individuals and will more likely be team efforts, often involving many people from diverse specialist disciplines and even from multiple societies.

And finally, the number of people nowadays involved in the business of research also continues to grow. The chances of making a discovery that will stand out from the crowd becomes smaller as the competition increases. So with many of the significant discoveries already made and the growing army of great minds competing for what remains to be discovered, its getting less and less likely that you will think of something that no-one has thought of ahead of you.

I’m not a scientist. I don’t speak the language. When I was young, the education system of the day was unsophisticated and clumsy (although I recall it thought quite a lot of itself). In High School, the clever students were channelled into science streams and learned mathematics, physics and chemistry .. while the dumber of us (including myself) were relegated to doing a ‘general’ course with an emphasis on more pedestrian subjects. I can understand how such a system evolved. What I still find deplorable is that it was based upon a faulty premise … namely that if a student hadn’t learned a particular thing, it implied a lack of intelligence. In reality, it often reflected a failure on the part of some teacher, to inspire interest in the subject matter. In my own case, I’ve never been able to feel enthusiastic for anything, if I couldn’t see how it could have use and application in my own life. What I see looking back, is that there were an awful lot of ‘clever’ kids who acquired lots of knowledge that they never again revisited, once they walked out of the education system and into the real world. And there are a few of us ‘dumb’ kids, who have spent a lifetime, trying to teach ourselves a little bit about the sciences, simply because we became interested as we matured. Funny thing is, while I’m struggling to understand my world and how it works, lots of those clever kids are watching reality TV!

So what is a body to do, if they have a scientific bent and a yen to make their mark on the world? My sincere advice would be that they take up acting, become a writer or maybe even apply for a spot on one of those reality TV shows. Forget about science! Fame isn’t all that likely to come to anyone who spends their time trying to understand science. Most of the great minds of modern science are attached to names that are completely unknown to the modern man in the street. (That same man in the street probably CAN however, name 50 movie stars, several authors and tell you who won last year’s ‘Big Brother’ reality TV series!

It seems to me, the fame that attaches to the great minds of yesteryear has to do with acknowledging the contributions that they made to science, while working at the leading edge of their fields. And while never wishing to diminish in any way, the greatness of people like Galileo Galilei , Newton, Copernicus or Aristotle, when comparing their world with that one in which today’s great minds find themselves, well might they say “If I seemed tall and visible, its because my contemporaries were generally few and short”.

But the contributions that are made to science by so many nameless great minds of today, while less famous and maybe not well known outside of the science community are nevertheless changing the lives of every person on the planet. And what an amazing and wonderful world they have built for the rest of us! I thank each and every ononymous one of them, from the bottom of my heart.

So if you want to be a part of this ongoing great and noble quest, forget about fame and fortune and look forward only to the gratitude of an occasional faceless nobody like me. Don’t think about making a mark. Try to think instead about making a valid contribution. I do believe that real science is a vocation, rather than a profession. And if the fame thing is a ‘must have’ for you, try Hollywood. If you can’t act, they might need some technical advisors for the next Star Trek movie!

I’m obviously not suggesting that history has no more prominent places for great scientists. And obviously, there are scientific discoveries of incalculable importance to mankind, which have yet to be made. All I’m really saying is that, in the fame stakes, the early greats had a lot less competition. Nowadays, it seems like you have to be a genius, just to make it to the leading edge of science …. much less to make an actual discovery there.

Andrew Caddle 20130811



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