December 26,2002 (Ira Pilgrim)


..a good course in systematic botany, taught on the lines of Greek grammar, can immunize the average child against any further interest in science.

J.B.S.Haldane 1892-1964

To the vast majority of people, scientific discoveries, musical compositions, inventions and so on, seem almost magical. We hear words like genius, talent, inspired, and so one. All of this gives it an aura of magic. Actually, it is nothing of the sort.

A scientist doesn't make a discovery by saying "Today, I am going to discover penicillin." A scientist who makes a discovery starts by having been interested in a subject for a long time. If it's astronomy, he has been watching the stars and planets for many many years. Long before he makes a discovery, he has learned how the stars and planets move. Most astronomers have been interested in stars from childhood. I am reasonably sure that Copernicus didn't start by deciding to discover the motion of the planets. He probably was fascinated by their motion and it was only later in life that he asked the important question of why the planets move the way that they do. You can be quite sure that he knew how they moved long before he asked that important question whether the Sun moves around the Earth or the Earth moves around the Sun..

What I am saying is that the vast majority of scientists, who make significant contributions to science, started on that path in childhood. Those kids aren't hard to spot. They love observing and solving problems as much or more than their companions may like baseball.

While it is impossible to predict which kid will make a discovery that will change the world, you can be pretty sure that he, or she, will be one of those kids who were interested in science at an early age.

Nothing happens in a vacuum. That spark of interest has to be nurtured by parents and teachers. While it may be hard to squelch that spark, it can be done and it is probably done often.

Why does one scientist make a major discovery, while another does not? Much of this is pure chance. What school a person ends up in may be a rational decision or pure chance. I selected the University of California at Berkeley because it was as far away from New York as I could get. I was fascinated by human genetics and would have ended up specializing in it if it wasn't for the fact that I had a family to support and was not free to travel. The professor required his students of human genetics to spend a year at a human genetics institute. So I ended up with a different professor and worked with mice and cancer.

Gregor Mendel, Copernicus and Dzierzon were all priests because that was the only way for a poor boy to get an education in the 1800s. Most other scientists of that time were members of the nobility. The very creative scientists in England (Darwin, Wallace, Kelvin and others) during that time were all from well-to-do families. In our country, the GI bill following W.W.II added a number of creative scientists who might otherwise have been unable to go to universities.

If it were possible to predict which of those curious children would become productive scientists, they could be given special training. Unfortunately, that special training would probably amounts to filling their heads full of information, much of which is wrong.

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