Sunday, March 25, 2012

We must be on the wrong track...

The other day my post-doc adviser and I were chatting about our work. He was a bit concerned, he told me, because the work we're doing is accepted very easily (thus far) into the scientific mainstream. I said, "It's like we must be on the wrong track, right?" He nodded.

We both knew the history of scientific revolutions...when something really groundbreaking is discovered, it's not easily accepted. So as much as he and I both like getting papers into journals, that's not as satisfying, in a way, as work that gets shoved to the side because no one believes its true. Those kind of controversial topics are more fun. There's the possibility with that kind of work that there's something really remarkable (and true) that's been discovered.

I guess that's why I spend a little bit of time each week on my controversial scientific hobbies, which are basically high-risk, high-potential-gain projects. One is examining the possibility of the subconscious awareness of future events. Another is investigating how live musical performance seems to produce healing effects on our bodies. A third is about gender differences in perception and cognition.

One of my heroes is Barbara McClintock (photo above). She received the Nobel Prize for her work discovering a mechanism by which chromosomes exchange information. After reading a beautiful biography of Dr. McClintock (A Feeling for the Organism by Evelyn Fox Keller), I began to fully appreciate the difficulty had by pioneers in any field.

Dr. McClintock was mocked by her colleagues because she spent what seemed to them an inordinate amount of time in cornfields. She studied corn genetics. Her explanation of her time spent with the plants was that she had to get to know her organisms, or how else would she understand them? Her colleagues also teased her for thinking that she could know, based on the patterns in generations of corn kernels, that genes could "jump."

Later in her life, she said this about the difficulties of making people understand an idea when the time isn't right:

"Over the years I have found that it is difficult if not impossible to bring to consciousness of another person the nature of his tacit assumptions when, by some special experiences, I have been made aware of them. This became painfully evident to me in my attempts during the 1950s to convince geneticists that the action of genes had to be and was controlled. It is now equally painful to recognize the fixity of assumptions that many persons hold on the nature of controlling elements in maize and the manners of their operation. One must await the right time for conceptual change."

Reading this, I feel better about the recent rejection of a paper about one of my more controversial hobbies. I don't know when the right time is for conceptual change in this case, but I'll keep doing my hobby experiments -- the fun, high-risk kind -- until the time is ripe.

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