Imagine you are back in the mid-1700s. You are walking the usual five kilometre route it takes you to get to school but instead of following the other children, you cut through a field. Running, because you got distracted by some playful tadpoles in a nearby creek and now you’re late, you trip over a rock and fall. While getting up and dusting yourself off you notice that the rock you tripped on wasn’t a rock but rather the badly weathered top of a skull. Quickly, forgetting about the scrapes on your hands and elbows, you dig around the skull. You notice that this isn’t any normal buck or cow skull, this skull is much too big. Seven year old you, along with many others, wouldn’t know that this skull belonged to the extinct mammoth, not until the mammoth was formally described in 1799, anyway.
It is 1928, a regular day. You have just come back from a holiday with the family and you return to your lab to find some old bacterial cultures you prepared before you left lying in the corner. On them, a bacteria you’ve looked at a thousand times, Staphylococcus aureus—the causal organism of staph infections, should be growing. Instead, you notice that some of the agar plates have less of the bacteria. “That’s funny,” you say. On these plates, there is something else growing, a mould. You isolate this mould and soon identify it as Penicillium notatum. Studying its interactions with Staphylococcus and other bacterial pathogens, you quickly realize that the fungus produces some kind of “mould juice” that inhibits the bacterial pathogen’s growth. This “juice” has some sort of antimicrobial property. A few months later, you rename it to what we know it as today, “penicillin.” Twenty years later, just in time for the Second World War, colleagues of yours develop a better method of extracting penicillin from the fungus, a different fungus, and penicillin becomes a commercially used product—beginning the age of antibiotics.
Now, imagine you’re a scientist in 2018; the naming of the mammoth by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach and the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming are long in the past; as are so many other past landmark discoveries, like learning the structure of DNA, electricity and the ancestors of humans. As we have advanced our understanding of nature and the universe, these kinds of world-changing discoveries are stumbled on less and less. Of course discoveries are still being made every day but most of them go unnoticed, as do yours.
Generally, scientists seek to make some sort of difference in the world, whether it’s by providing some understanding through knowledge, developing something or discovering something else. It is easy to lose sight of that when you compare your discoveries to your role models and other well-known scientists who came before.
Why do scientists become well-known; why are people well-known?
Because there is a story about them doing something great or something incredibly wrong.
All science should be widely celebrated; scientists are making the unknown known, the difficult easy, the impossible possible—not matter how “small” the finding, it moves humanity forward. It does not matter if you think the stories about your discoveries or the discovery itself are ordinary, tell it; but tell it well and tell it to everyone. Science and unity is all that can save this world and, for the moment, science appears to be our best shot. Let’s unite in the celebration of science and continue our stories forward, proudly, and, should the opportunity present itself as a skull in the ground or contaminated plate, be prepared to trip or stumble onto greatness.
Pint of science, tell your story where you can.jpg