The pixelated nature of scientific success and digging for diamonds

We pretend science isn’t like this but some experiments are like digging for diamonds. Each team member digs and digs but most only find dirt and dust. Then suddenly someone finds a diamond.

Each diamond is like a shining, white pixel. Over a lifetime a researcher’s career is coloured by how many diamonds are found and those who frequently find diamonds are furnished with more shovels, and joined by more team members and unsurprisingly this allows them to find more diamonds. Diamonds are not distributed randomly but often cluster in hot areas, so sometimes it pays to follow scientific fashions (CRISPR, stem cells, RNAi, the microbiome etc).

Diamond digging isn’t all luck and some people have the nous to know which new areas are worth digging in. And pretty much everyone who has been determined and effective enough to earn a PhD knows they are good enough to find some diamonds sometimes.

This provides a sort of equality in science. At any moment the newest student can potentially find the biggest diamond. But on the other hand, the smartest young (or older) researcher may miss out on finding any diamonds for a while and be saddened by their lack of success in comparison to their peers. I probably spend too much time on Twitter where I see a deep pervading angst and anxiety about ‘the system’ that I think in part reflects the very challenging, pixelated and sometimes random nature of scientific success. Not every field of human endeavour is as pixelated – Usain Bolt for instance, was a great runner and mostly won his races.

I was told that you should design experiments so that they don’t involve win/loss scenarios. I remember someone saying, just design things so that you get a great answer whether or not your hypothesis is right. You can only do this sometimes. Say you want to count the population of kangaroos – whatever result you get is interesting. But if you want to find a diamond or put a man on the moon, getting within a yard of your target isn’t a solution. The fact is that many of the really memorable scientific breakthroughs are all or nothing events. You’ve either cloned a new gene or you haven’t.

It’s sort of useful to look at the whole world as if it were pixelated. And in many ways the world is like that. One of the main criticisms of evolutionary theory was that over time everything would become blended and tend towards the mean. Thus black and white cats would have grey kittens and in the future all their offspring would be grey. So the whole world would tend towards a non-descript soup. But Mendel discovered that genes are digital. You have a mutation or you don’t and it is passed on intact. So black and white cats can have litters made up of black and white kittens.

As well as the successes of scientists being pixelated and digital, it helps to see people’s failings in the same way. People are seldom all good or all bad, nor are they always good or always bad. Rather some people have a few dark pixels, and others more, but everyone has some bright shining pixels too. Remembering this can help one to see the best in everyone and ensure that everyone is treated with proper respect as the scientific endeavour progresses.

Sadly, of course, while respect is infinitely available, material resources are not, and it is the competition for resources and their allocation to those who find the first diamonds that introduces pressures into the system. The great hope is that by selling some of the diamonds the scientific enterprise will continue to prosper and grow. Over history this has certainly happened, though it doesn’t always feel that way to people, stuck in an area with few bright pixels.


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