January 19, 2000 (Ira Pilgrim)


I cannot give any scientist of any age better advice than this: the intensity of a conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing over whether it is true or not.

Peter Medawar

A person doesn't set out to make a discovery the way that he sets out to build a house. He may want to make a discovery, but he can't set out to do it because he has no idea what he intends to discover. Columbus didn't set out to discover America, he set out to find a shorter sea route to the orient. Leeuwenhoek didn't set out to discover germs, nor did any scientist who made a discovery set out to discover what he did discover.

The usual route for a scientist is that he sets out to study a subject. It is plodding and painstaking work. If he is lucky, and if he is the kind of person who would recognize something important when it crosses his path he might make a discovery.

Not many scientists make discoveries. If something that could be discovered was a basketball, most scientists wouldn't recognize it if it hit them on the head. Every bacteriologist, going way back to when Petri dishes were first used by Petri to observe colonies of bacteria, has seen mold growing on his old cultures, and sometimes there is a ring around the mold colony where there are no bacteria growing. It took the genius of Alexander Flemming to realize that this was important; that something produced by certain molds killed bacteria. He postulated that there might be a substance produced by the mold that killed bacteria and that might be used as an "antibiotic." He published his discovery and it sat around for some 10 years until there was a world war and a couple of other scientists(Florey and Chain) realized the practical possibilities and proceeded to develop penicillin.

During my time as a scientist, when I was interviewed by a reporter, I was invariably asked "What use does your research have?" I tried to come up with something. I rarely told the plain unvarnished truth which was that I really had no idea. Since I was working with cancer, the expected response was that my research could result in a cure for the disease. However, no scientist really knows what effect his research will have. Being human, every scientist hopes that his work will have some value, but he doesn't really know. Gregor Mendel knew that his work was important, but he could not possibly have known how important it really was. He did not know that his work would form the basis for almost everything that was significant that occurred in biology from about 1900 on.

I was pretty sure that my work wouldn't yield a cure for cancer. What I was searching for was an understanding of what cancer was and how it happened. I left the stuff having to do with cures to the medical people.

To people who are mostly interested in how to prolong their own lives, my work was useless. So is all of art and music and literature. I could go further and state that most of what people do is of no use whatever to anyone other than themselves. I suppose that some would attach some significance to taking out the garbage, sweeping the floor, taking a bath, watching something (anything) on television. Some people get a good deal of joy and satisfaction out of their work. For most people, the most important part of their job is the paycheck.

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