The other day I suffered the sporting equivalent of dropping a brick on my big toe. This got me to contemplating those life-altering moments in science that we occasionally experience; you know, when nothing will ever look quite the same again. The first one I recall was visited on me while driving with my family as a small child of about seven. We were grinding along in the height of cool for those days, a Ford Consul, and I was staring at a heap of mining waste that glowed a rather intriguing white in the sun. “How come we can see things?” I asked my father. A good teacher he, his response was “well, how do you think it works?” After some contemplation (and maybe a bit of inspiration from Marvel comic book heroes?) I suggested that our eyes sent out unspecified `things' that bounced off objects and returned into our eyes. After successfully suppressing his derision, he explained to me that light was composed of minute little balls that came from the sun and bounced randomly off things in all directions, and that my eyes pick up some of these balls and construct images and colours from them. I spent the rest of the drive being amazed at the sheer quantity of balls in the universe.
Oh yes, the connection to my toe. Quite plainly, my father made this one up. When I looked at my blackened extremity it hurt. The only possible explanation I could think of was that my toe was sensitive to even the infinitesimal pressure exerted by those unspecified `things' that – I remain convinced – are emitted from my eye, bounced off my toe and returned to my eyes to register the whole sorry mess.
There doesn't seem to be a word for those life altering scientific moments that define a point in time where things that happened before fall into one era and things that happen after fall into another. Maybe we should run a competition to coin one? Revelation is a bit too biblical for my taste, but maybe it's a place to start. With that particular problem kicked vigorously into touch, I started to think carefully about scientific revelatory moments. How often do they really occur? “Not often”, seemed to be the answer. The next scientific revelation for me was at least seven years later, when my biology teacher explained the scientific method. It still stuns me how few scientists seem to adhere to the scientific method. Perhaps they don't even know what it is? I went around some colleagues in the lab and asked them. Some didn't know. Stunning. So, just in case you are one of the 40% whose formal education is lacking, I will recap. The scientific method is this: you take your (or somebody else's) observations or data and use them to create a theory. You then design an experiment to disprove your theory. Implicit in this is that you don't design an experiment to prove your hypothesis. Yes, that is correct: you do not try and prove your hypothesis.
Contemplating this moment of revelation, it occurred to me that somebody needs to explain this to the emerging generation of cell biologists. I went to a meeting not so long ago that was infested with a new breed of junior PI. What did they do that warrants my concern? What did they do that warrants the use of words like “infested”? Here is what appears to me to be the general pattern (and like all generalisations, dear reader, I am sure it doesn't apply to you). Bright kid does well in postdoc, publishing a couple of interesting papers. Bright kid gets job offer, which includes significant set-up expenses. Bright kid buys fancy microscope with bells and whistles, knobs and lasers. Bright kid looks down microscope and sees pretty things. Bright kid Metamorphs™ into Emerging Cell Biologist (ECB™), observing lots, making very few hypotheses, predicting little and testing virtually nothing.
The problem is, ECBs™ don't seem to want to even create a hypothesis, never mind actually try and disprove one. The whole point of ECBs™ seems to be to get bigger and better pictures with more and more detail. I have nothing against pictures, I even publish some myself, but they are not an end in themselves: they are just another way of exploring the universe, just another set of balls for interpretation. Using pictures to repeat the genetic ordering of genes in a pathway is not innovative science. Visualising in living cells what is already known from still images may add detail and get you a paper in a cell biology journal, but it doesn't push forward the boundaries or discover very much that is new. It is time that, like everybody else, ECBs™ were judged on their overall performance, not on the size of their equipment. So, next time you go to a meeting, look behind the advertising and ask what theory the speaker is trying to disprove.
It took probably another 20 years for my next scientific revelation (at least one that I can actually remember). A long time ago, I attended a meeting that qualified as a scientific revelation for me. My intellectual life can be measured as before that meeting, when my ideas were unfocused and there was no framework (i.e. I was bored), and after, when things coalesced and it was possible to structure theories within my subject and see how they could be challenged (i.e. I was interested). Few other meetings have even come close to generating a similar excitement – and certainly none in the last 5-10 years. There have been occasional highlights, where a particularly well-structured programme managed to keep me awake for the full four days, but nothing to write home about. What is it with modern meetings, why are there suddenly so many of them? Surely there is no scientific justification for ten virtually identical meetings in a calendar year? It comes down, I suspect, to politics and money, the twin pickpockets of all that is (or was) good.
People organise meetings because organising meeting gets you noticed. People invite the major players because big names on a programme attract attention. Attention must be attracted because meetings are increasingly expensive to run (and nobody wants to end up with a debt). Important people agree to speak at multiple meetings because it gets them noticed. Getting noticed is now so important for important people wishing to remain important that they will pay to speak at even a fairly specialist meeting! Gone are the days when you were invited to present a paper and thus had your expenses covered. Now, the professional meeting organisers leave reimbursement of your travel budget to the whims of an increasingly reluctant and put-upon set of sponsors.
Now there's a good example of the scientific method in action. The hypothesis was that, scientists are now so driven to gain attention in an increasingly competitive environment that they are prepared to pay the costs of their own travel and accommodation without the expectation of a refund to speak at a specialist conference. How did they test this hypothesis? They established a whole lot more specialist meetings and invited scientists under the above conditions. If they didn't turn up, the hypothesis would be disproved. Unfortunately, we did turn up. The hypothesis thus became a law of nature.
How about more recent moments of scientific revelation? Unfortunately, I haven't had one. Well, maybe one. But it was rather negative and, semantically, may not even qualify as a scientific revelation. No matter, here it is: I actually listened to a particular individual speak at a conference recently and suddenly realised that a significant minority of scientists really do think that hypothesis-driven science is effectively dead. This sent me into a panic; how do you follow the scientific method without a hypothesis to disprove! I spent many sleepless nights wondering about this and came up with no clear answer. The closest I got was to decide that these people are only pretending to be scientists and that they are not practicing science at all. It is not all that satisfactory as an answer, is it?
Maybe the scientific method is no longer relevant to science? Maybe the scientific method is dead? This would excite some people, that's for sure – imagine being funded to make as many observations as you like and to publish them in high-profile journals and not even have to construct a hypothesis! Imagine turning your data directly into a natural law. Without having to test anything! Without even having to ignore that irksome bit of data that didn't fit. But hold on, it gets better: imagine never having to use a hypothesis to make a prediction, imagine never having to work out how to test a prediction! I am degenerating into John Lennon here I think. People never did learn to live in peace. When all the singing and dancing is done, I am pretty sure we will still be left with the need to apply the scientific method. After all, science is defined as the process of evaluating empirical knowledge not the process of generating observations for their own sake.
So, come on all you ECBs™; it's very simple. You make some observations (you can do that with a big microscope if you like). You make a hypothesis (that's a theoretical explanation of why you observed what you observed). You make a prediction that, if not borne out, destroys your hypothesis (it's getting more difficult, but bear with it and you might surprise yourself). Finally, you do an experiment that tests the prediction – that's the fun bit by the way.