The sandcastle of science

Posted By on October 6, 2010

.: Last month I made my first genuine scientific discovery: the genomic sequence and a mutant variant of the magnesium chelatase subunit I gene of Nicotiana sylvestris. It was a discovery only in the strictest technical sense, on par of someone “discovering” in the morning that they have just woken. No new theories were required to obtain this knowledge, the protocols followed have existed in some form since the 80’s, and this particular gene has been sequenced at least a thousand times in other organisms. Even the mutant variant has been characterized previously in maize (down to the exact nucleotide substitution).

.: Still, it’s my discovery, and I can work with it. When I showed the trace files to Csanad, another member of the lab, he mock-congratulated me for “placing another brick in the castle of science.” I had never heard that phrase before, so we ran with the metaphor for a while, eventually coming up with a more refined view scientific contributions:

Science is a partially-formed sandcastle onto which scientists haphazardly heap buckets of sand grains, most of which are unlabeled. Some scientists try to fashion the growing mound into something resembling a castle, while most others busily add as much sand to the pile as they can. Every now and then a bully scientist will come by and stomp everything beyond repair, and a paradigm wave will wash the rest back into the sea of mystery. Pseudoscientists use the same shovels and buckets as science, but they mostly just dig holes on the beach for other people to trip into.

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