Curiouser and curiouser (history of science & research topics)

By Grant Jacobs 18/02/2011

History of science is great stuff. There’s endless stories and I’ll introduce you to some excellent reading soon.

I paused for thought today, just a little, over how these popular accounts might be taken to represent all or most of the science of that time.

Astronomer Zhang Heng's water-driven earthquake detection/warning device (CE 132). (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
Astronomer Zhang Heng's water-driven earthquake detection/warning device (CE 132). (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

There’s a selection bias going on, of course.

The quirkier and more intriguing a story, the more likely a writer is to choose it. So we read the stranger stories of the past, not the routine – or at least the stranger from today’s viewpoint.

Crime writers, too. They’re more likely to pick the odd, the clever than the ordinarily brutal. (True?) This must, surely, also be true for those who write about the science associated with crime.

The same might be said for research projects.

I can recall–a number of years ago now–hearing a remark from an excellent technician. I forget exactly what was said, but it was a cheerful admonishment to effect that scientists were drawing conclusions from (early) ‘gene array’ studies based mainly on extrapolating from the exceptional cases, rather than looking to the commonplace.

Many biologists focus on the exceptional, the odd. It’s not unjustified. The exceptions to the rule illuminate the normal state of affairs. A mutation in a gene, knocking out it’s function, gives clues as to what the gene normally does. A small, focused, stroke disrupting particular brain function suggests what that part of the brain normally does.

But it’s also true that unusual things appeal and it can be a trap to fall into.

There are, of course, projects aiming to establish the normal, the base line.

One of my interests is epigenetics, part of which is chemical modifications of DNA and the proteins that package DNA, and how that relates to control of if a gene is used or not. There are excellent examples of surveys aimed at learning what is the normal situation.

Strahov Theological Hall
Strahov Theological Hall

Another kind of ‘ordinary’ project might be the projects that take a smaller piece of a particular scientific puzzle and resolve it. They might not get the attention of a Nature or Science paper, but to those working on that particular issue they’ll matter.

Do you think that in, say, a hundred years time these ‘ordinary’ projects will appear in whatever the equivalent to blogs are then?

Even well-considered research of the day will blend into the larger scene in time.

I imagine some will intrigue because the today’s methods will in time seem quaint. Future readers might admire the scientists’ persistence despite their cumbersome tools, perhaps like this account of a gentleman who manually solved all square roots from 2 to 589.

Others will seem not worth mentioning to all but a few of the most dedicated followers. (And they’d surely bore their readers.)

Perhaps, then, we should spare a thought for the many smaller pieces of each scientific puzzle when only the main ones are named, or the systematic studies slowly compiling a larger picture when their conclusions are only mentioned in passing, if at all.*

Anyway, that history of science reading I promised…

You should definitely not go past the 32nd edition of The Giant’s Shoulders, the history of science blogging carnival. There’s something there for everyone.

Among many other offering is Bora Zivkovic’s long–seriously long!–article Circadian clock without DNA–History and the power of metaphor at Scientific American. Besides examining the circadian clock, the day-night cycle, it also exploring the role of metaphor in science.**

The Royal Society (London) history of science journal, Notes and Records, has an interesting article, ‘Hurrah for the missing link!’: a history of apes, ancestors and a crucial piece of evidence, (open access) by Peter Kjærgaard who writes placing the origin of the use of the term well before Darwin’s Origin of the Species. (You can’t but help note that it was considered an ultimate prize in it‘s lives in the curious form of Creationists insisting that there are ‘further ’missing links’’.)

This Seattle Times article reviews a play, a bio-drama, presenting the life of Emilie, the Marquise du Châtelet, ’18th-century aristocrat, scientist and longtime lover of the writer Voltaire’, with an interestig short gloss of her life.

As always there are too many things I’d point you to at Whewell’s Ghost. (There’s a reason it’s in my blogroll!) Lest I be accused of copping out entirely, two I find particularly interesting are Old Concepts of Life on Venus and Mars (including pictures from the Venera 9 lander) and What are science museums for? (following, in part, from a debate around the Science Museum (London) presenting ‘alternative medicine’ in a manner that several have objected to).

Looking at more recent times, this Wired Science article frets the loss of taxonomists. I fret the loss of cytogenetics, but that’s a story for another article.

Speaking of other articles, it may be time to let this one go.


* Historians and scientists, particularly those knowledgeable in the scientific area being discussed, are well aware of this, of course; I’m thinking of a casual reading but those not familiar with the topic at hand. (This includes scientists reading outside their sphere!) I’ve two minds about this issue. On one hand you want to have an accurate feel for what took place. On the other, too much is boring. I read them for entertainment, after all, as I’m sure most people do.

** There are a couple of metaphors in bioinformatics that have been bothering me for the longest time that I might find time to explore. I’m not going to match Bora for length. I hope.

(Updated 1st March 2011 to add missing ‘More…’ page break.)

Other articles at Code for Life:

An history of ancient science in less than ten minutes

Wellcome diversions

Immunisation, then and now

Royal science

Book review — The Poisoner’s Handbook

Russell Doolittle on Life before Bioinformatics

137 years of Popular Science back issues, free

0 Responses to “Curiouser and curiouser (history of science & research topics)”