The life of an idea
From brain to paper, scientific ideas discover longevity
'Religions die when they are proved to be true. Science is the record of dead religions.' -- Oscar Wilde, Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young
Thanks to pop culture osmosis, science would seem to be a parade of Eureka! moments, were it not for the fact that, well, it's not.
The story, so we're told, goes something like this: scientists toil away quietly in their laboratories, doing whatever it is scientists do. After a montage of pipetting, mixing, shaking, and eyeballing -- signifying whole hours have passed -- the discovery (!) is revealed. Humanity is saved, or just the president, or perhaps a busload of schoolchildren precariously perched over a gravitational anomaly.
That isn't to say real science can't be exciting. Earlier this year, Indiana University Bloomington geologist David Polly and colleagues from the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Florida and the University of Toronto-Mississauga announced their discovery of the biggest snake known to us, a 42-foot-long, 2.5-ton boa. As National Public Radio's Christopher Joyce said in his report, "It's tempting to wait until the end of the story to reveal that this snake is extinct, but that wouldn't be fair."
The public perception of science is generally not too close to the truth. The grand moments of discovery are real, but they hardly ever happen at the end of the story as the culmination of feverish work. It's usually the opposite, actually. A discovery signals the real work is about to begin.
Where does a good scientific idea come from? Is it a destination, the result of diligent steering or is it merely an accident? Both, it turns out.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, University of California San Diego chemist Kary Mullis explained the origin of his discovery of the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR -- a chemical tool so utterly ubiquitous, it is now essential to life sciences. Mullis decided he would take a night drive to do some serious thinking about how he could make DNA and other nucleic acids more useful to science. As Mullis drove, he plowed through the things he knew, deducing one thing after another, until he'd arrived at his great idea.
Great ideas -- theories and technologies -- also can arrive unexpectedly. Serendipity is science's grand muse, the hope and expectation that if a problem is examined from all possible angles, an entirely new problem will appear.
Former IU Bloomington doctoral student James Watson once explained that his Nobel Prize-winning discovery of DNA's structure was the result of a dream. What could be more serendipitous than that? Watson, Rosalind Franklin and Francis Crick had previously pored over reams of X-ray crystallographs, unable to decide the shape and structure of DNA's long, slender molecules. DNA could have been single-stranded, double-stranded or triple-stranded, and each proposition had its supporters and detractors. Watson told friends he had dreamed of two serpents intertwined, but that the head of one led down, the other up. The realization that DNA, if double-stranded, must be anti-polar was an imaginative breakthrough.
Moments of discovery in either Watson or Mullis' case were followed by laborious, careful work aimed at confirming the idea. Mullis had to show PCR wasn't merely an asphalt-induced fantasy, and Watson had to show the chemical and biochemical nature of DNA is more than a metaphor.
Not all scientific ideas are explored by the scientists who conceived them. Young scientists, for example, continue the work they did during their postdoctoral fellowships or doctoral studies.
IU Bloomington biologist Melanie Marketon said her interest in Yersinia pestis, the bacterial species that causes plague, began during her postdoctoral work at the University of Chicago. "I was always really interested in how bacterial pathogens and commensals interact with their hosts," she said. "Then I learned about Yersinia's ability to build a needle on the outside of its cell, I was just amazed. I thought, 'Wow! They're like living syringes. I have to study that.'"
After scientists make preliminary discoveries, or see a scientific question in need of an answer, they must devise a way of discerning truth through experiment. Some experiments don't require much support beyond what their universities or colleges provide. And some experiments require scientists spend money. The reagents researchers use for basic chemical and biochemical reactions cost money. Access to Antarctica and the Arctic, as IU Bloomington geologist David Bish sometimes requires, costs money. Access to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Very Large Array costs money. Phase three clinical trials, which are often administered at dozens or hundreds of participating research hospitals . . . you get the idea.
If the scientific project is in the public interest, scientists may approach a source of public funding, such as Indiana's 21st Century Fund, or the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Energy and National Institutes of Health. Private organizations also fund research. IU scientists are regular beneficiaries of private funding, from non-profits like the Packard Foundation to for-profits like Monsanto, Inc.
Grant proposals are a lot like business pitches. Scientists must convince the proposals' readers what they want to do is not only important, but more important than the hundreds of other grant proposals the funding organization might have received. It is here that great scientific ideas must make the cut, or be rescinded and refashioned for another try several months later.
Just as times are tough for homeowners and investors, it's not a great time to seek funding support in America. Nevertheless, IU faculty and staff scientists bring about $450 million to the state each year to support research and education.
Many factors can sink a grant proposal, but improving a grant's chances of success is a scientist's track record. Successful scientists are rewarded. IU Bloomington chemist Gary Hieftje, an analytical chemist who invents new (and considerably better) ways for chemists and biologists to do their work, has more than $4 million in support from the National Science Foundation alone, owed in part to the number of technologies he's developed that have made their way to the marketplace. In the language of business, Hieftje's proposals are less risky investments.
And, of course, the project described by the grant proposal must be convincing. Researchers must present insightful, even elegant experiments that show a scientific idea, alluring as it may be, is not false.
Presuming a project is funded, what follows are months or years of painstaking work. The Eureka! moment will seem like a distant memory. Scientists must collect data in the lab or in the field, process it and organize it. Only then is it ready for the real test: Do the data -- information collected in the real, natural world -- support their ideas?
Even when the answer is no, some scientists opt to publish the results. If the scientist's idea was a good one but turned out to be untrue, it is important other scientists and the public know.
Until recently, microbiologists and medical researchers thought bacteria only alter their mutation rates when subjected to stressful and strange conditions -- application of antibiotics or immersion in mildly toxic chemicals.
A few years ago, IU Bloomington biologist Patricia Foster and graduate student Jill Layton learned that might not be the case. The scientists found that E. coli, a bacterium that lives harmlessly in the bottom half of our guts, ratchets up its mutation rate when it simply runs out of food. Given the stop-start nature of food flow through the gut, starvation conditions are common inside mammalian intestines. Foster had submitted her report to the journal Molecular Microbiology, a prestigious journal in her field.
Does a scientific idea's life end with publication? Almost never. It lives and grows, acquiring definition and substance. For example, Foster's colleagues might wonder whether there's a reason some bacteria increase their mutation rates when starved, or what the consequences might be. Virtually all E. coli are non-pathogenic, but occasionally we run into the odd pathogenic version. If anything, Foster's unexpected idea stoked the fires of fascination.
Ideas are born of human minds, and as such, they are prone to fault. Sometimes mistakes and misperceptions allow bad ideas to mature into publications. But the rigorous, vigilant nature of science means gross errors are rare. The thirst for knowledge, truth and the upsetting of conventional wisdom is a driving force in science and a motive for scientists. Ideas are both the end and the means.
In the end, our scientific ideas may never quite arrive at the truth, but scientists' countless contributions to the betterment of our lives show us they must be getting awfully close.