Sunday 24 August 2008

What is a scientist?

Thanks to global warming, we hear a lot about scientists.

We hear that a majority think this, or the majority think that, or that such-and-such has signed a something-or-other.

Today, the SMH even made mention of an "emminent scientist", but that had something to do with turning "Colin" the whale into sushi - "colin in my colon", so to speak.

That got me thinking - what is a scientist, and even more curiously, what is an "emminent" scientist? How do you become a scientist?

The accepted wisdom seems to be that a scientist was someone that had completed a science degree. But that is a very modern condition. I am not going to bother researching this (too little sleep last night), but I presume that great scientists like Franklin, Archimedes, Edison, Pasteur, Curie and Newton didn't exactly follow that route. A degree is only thought of as a necessary condition in these times of educational achievement inflation. It used to be that a member of the aristocracy or the upper classes could develop say an interest in rocks, send away for a few books on the subject, have dinner with a local expert once a month and then build a collection from their estate in the conservatory. Next thing you know, this upper-crust twit with a taste for Oxford cloth and plus-fours has developed a new theory on plate techtonics or something like that (I made all that up - simply as an insight into how "amateur" scientists actually did a lot of the work until our degree factories started turning out white coated lab technicians without a spark of insight in their newly mortar-boarded skulls).

What about being published? Is that a necessary condition? I write quite a bit of stuff (mostly crap), have been published from time to time in various newspapers and magazines (I even made it into Penthouse once) - but I would never call myself a "writer", let alone an "author". Many "scientists" only want to get published in order to secure a job, or to help their application for their next research grant. The volume of publications that a scientist gets into is more a sign of their desperation for tenure or cash than an indicator of their achievements in advancing the field of human knowledge.

I went to uni with a bloke who was completely brilliant, and he became what I would call a scientist. He was the smartest guy in the state, as judged by the statewide final year exams at school. He walked away with the University Medal, which goes to the student with the highest marks. He went on to study at Oxford, where his lab was showered with cash from some patent or another so that he could poke the AIDS virus with machines that went "ping". From there, he moved on to UCLA and a nice lab in San Francisco that was awash with even more money for AIDS research. I figured that this guy was so bright, if someone discovers the cure for AIDS, it will be him. (He is also insanely hard working).

Anyway, about 10 years ago, Chris and I did a little round the world sojourn and dropped in on him in San Fran for a couple of nights of beer and catching up. Chris had a big advantage over me, in that he had 4 years of Ag Science under his belt, so he was able to tell one end of a sheep from the other. Believe me, that helps when discussing breakthroughs in AIDS research over a few dozen beers.

We got to talking, and we popped the big question after touring the lab and looking at lots of machines that went "ping", examining hordes of rats and seeing legions of white coated researchers scurrying this way and that. The question was this:

"JC, what exactly is it that you do?"

His answer was quite simple. And remember, this is the smartest, best educated, hardest working individual you are ever likely to meet.

"I spend my days writing applications for grant money".

Us: "OK, and after that? Do you poke around the insides of cell DNA with an electron microscope? Have a video conference with the smart cookies at MIT? Peer into test tubes?"

JC: "No, that's my day. I just write grant applications. And occasionally go to meetings."

Us: "And what do you discuss at these meetings? New methods for deciphering how the virus works? Ways to prevent transmission? New analysis methods?"

JC: "No, we generally talk about how our grant applications are going. And if we've been succesful, we fight over how many graduate students each lab gets."

Us: "Ummmmmmmmmmmm....... where can we get some proper American style ribs?"

So that's how the biggest brains on the planet spend their days.

JC did relent after a while and took us back to the rat lab to show us his favourite rats. He had lots of rats. He explained how many millions of dollars a year he spent on buying, feeding and housing rats. It was a lot of money. You could feed half of Ethiopia on the money that he spent on rats.

Us: "So what do you do with your rats?"

JC: (Stroking a fine looking specimen) "We inject them with stuff, then we kill them, chop their tails off, put the tails in a blender, and then test samples of the tail soup."

Us: "And how often does that happen around here?"

JC: "About every 5 minutes".

That is still the best explanation that I can give anyone as to how research labs work. A cure for AIDS will be delivered on the tails of a million expensive, well fed rats. In a blender.

JC did come through with the great American ribs. Trouble is, he directed us to a place that was deep in a suburb that had never seen white men before. It was a pretty cool sort of joint - I guess the owner had played basketball at one point, for photos of black basketballers adorned almost every surface of the interior. We ordered, acted like Martians from another planet (ie, sat around and were completely oggled by about two dozen locals who could not believe the temerity of one honky, let alone two, walking into their turf.

We collected our ribs and split. The next day, we mentioned to someone we met that we'd been to wherever it was. The expression on their face would be like if you walked into Faluja a few years back with a herd of pigs and a sign saying, "If you're sick of rooting goats, try a pig for once".

Anyway, I have a slightly jaundiced view now of scientific research, and people purporting to be scientists.

This is my view of a real scientist.

When we were at uni, we went on a road trip one weekend to JC's farm. Or his parent's farm, to be more specific. We spent Saturday night making petrol bombs and trying to set a recently fallen and rather wet tree on fire. The tree had to go, so we were performing a valuable service for this parents.

The petrol bombs were made from empty beer bottles, and the empty beers bottles were made by drinking the beer that they contained. The more we felt like burning things, the more bottles we required, so the faster we drank them, so the faster we got drunk.

JC, having an enquiring mind, wondered whether a mix of diesel and petrol would do better service as the oil in the diesel would stick to the tree and burn longer. That progressed to mixing up a mild form of napalm, which we set off by perching molotov cocktails with a burning wick on the tree and then shooting at them with various rifles. JC then progressed by trying to evaluate the probability of one or all of us ending up in Casualty before the night was over... and calculating whether we would run out of beer before we all passed out, or ended up with 3rd degree burns.
I have no idea how the night finished up, and I think JC's note book became indecipherable about the point where we ran out of beer and start on VO Invalid port.

But the next morning, we had one scorched tree and a herd of rather frightened cows.

So we blew up the tree with dynamite and went home.

Now that's science.

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