Big, crazy, magic, unconventional science

10th March 2020
Beryl Shuttleworth
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A recent post by a very respected scientist on Facebook got me thinking about science and cowboys and the nature of innovation.

Like many other things on social media, science has become a bit of a competition. We all want to be cleverer than, better than, more scientific than our peers. And what better way to do that than to loudly proclaim ‘lack of scientific evidence’ at every opportunity.

Sometimes, yes, it is true. And the way of science, the very definition of science, is to painstakingly test and restest minute variations of a theory until a clearer picture emerges.

And yet, it is my belief that rejecting ideas because of ‘lack of scientific evidence’ closes doors in the faces of curiosity and innovation. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Planck once described how “science advances one funeral at a time”.  This implies that scientists hold so tightly to their theories that only their death allows new thinking on the subject.

In addition, scientific funding tends to favour ‘safer’, more conventional thinking over wilder, seemingly impossible theories. No-one is lining up to throw money at ‘unscientific’ research.

These things result in a scientific industry unwilling to take risks, even in small things like Facebook posts. And yet, often, big scientific breakthroughs need big, unscientific thinking. Here are a couple of examples:

  1. Scientists at the turn of the century were struggling to work out how nerve cells transmitted messages from one to another. Then Otto Loewi dreamt about an experiment he could perform using two frog hearts. He woke up, wrote it down then drifted back to sleep. On waking he was unable to ‘decipher the scrawl’. Luckily for him, and for science, he had the same dream the next night. This time, he leapt out of bed and started on the experiment immediately, which proved the existence of the chemical neurotransmitter, acetycholine.
  • Alexander Fleming, for some reason, thought that his snot could kill bacteria. He prepared two petri dishes, smeared them both with bacteria, and added his nasal mucous to one. He then went off on a two week holiday.  His snot made absolutely no difference in the growth of the bacteria over the two week period. But a stray mould that contaminated one of the dishes, totally wiped out the bacteria close to it. Penicillin was discovered.

Perhaps, we scientists should rather be encouraging adventurous musings on social media. Imagine the possibilities if people felt more free to share new, untested and seemingly illogical scientific thoughts without the risk of ridicule.

Social media also facilitates collaboration. It is far more likely, in today’s connected world, to find someone, somewhere who could supply the missing ingredient to your theory – the thing that lifts it out of theory into reality.

Now, more than ever, we should be sharing our ‘ridiculous’, ‘unscientific’, ‘unproven’ theories with the world.  Social media allows us the chance to investigate, collaborate and grow weird and unusual scientific ideas into new laws of nature, new realities, new medicines, new cures.

Let’s be brave, let’s be unconventional, let’s rock the scientific boat with snot and frog hearts. Let’s do big, crazy, magic, unconventional science. And, in addition, let’s be kind to one another while we do this.

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