Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The decline of curiosity

I once had to mug up the chemistry of chromium, molybdenum and tungsten for an exam. Can’t remember which exam it was, but we’d been given a fairly heavy clue by an inorganic chemistry lecturer.

I managed to unearth an old chemistry book which wasn’t modern enough for the exam but full of fascinating details of old-fashioned bench chemistry. Lots of forgotten experiments where chemists tried to make all manner of weird and wonderful compounds based on tungsten. I couldn't put it down for quite a while, but eventually I reluctantly shoved it back on the shelf and turned my attention to the more conventional stuff. 

The chaps in that old book were driven by curiosity and the thrill of making a genuine discovery, even if it turned out to be an obscure footnote destined for a life on dusty shelves. My kind of chemistry in other words.

Maybe I was born too late because I don’t think this kind of science is as common as it used to be, but how does one get a handle on something as nebulous as scientific curiosity?

Yet I suspect anyone who grew up in the fifties or sixties will remember a kind of optimistic curiosity we no longer see. A curiosity tinged with delightfully naive expectations that the natural world will be forever fascinating.

Fifty years on, it seems to me that the curiosity I knew has been so squeezed and distorted by commercial and political narratives that it is no longer recognisable as curiosity at all.


Woodsy42 said...

Bench chemistry. Is that where you actually do something and note what happens in the real world? How dreadfully old fashioned!
What's wrong with writing a computer programme and modelling it?
That's how science should be done! Saves all the problems of results being out of step with the real world because you don't ever have to look at the real world, all you have to do is convince people that what they see is mistaken.
In fact such 'natural philosophy' has a long and noble history, it's how science was always done until a few centurias ago when troublemakers like Galileo started dropping things off a tower in Pisa as an experiment to see what really happened and discovered the models were wrong.

Sackerson said...

AKH: agree. Who was it who got a Nobel Prize for decoding some enormously long molecule over 60 years of lonely research? Like a nineteenth-century geographical explorer.

Roger said...

I suppose at one time when theory was pretty sketchy or the calculations too long and tedious or impossible it was much quicker to follow the 'cut and try' method or just 'see what happens'. Then I wonder just who it was who first took a look at the scummy stuff the workers scooped off the top of molten silver. The little byways and half-hidden paths, I suppose they still exist. Let us hope they don't all get deleted from the data but somehow survive as a sort of data-goop to be discovered by some future lab-rat.

Mac said...

Curiosity? Today, for 'us', curiosity lasts as long as it takes to type our question into Google; and Google's never wrong, right? Right?

Michael said...

This probably why the pharma companies are way out on their own.

There are the real challenges.

A K Haart said...

Woodsy - it certainly seems old hat now, particularly the need to admit you were barking up the wrong tree when ideas don't work. We no longer do that.

Sackers - I think the lonely research is what many want to do, but it is no longer a viable option. It was always a little too romantic, but not as impossible as it is now.

Roger - that's an interesting area because I suspect there are many worthwhile research areas which dropped out of sight for a range of reasons.

Mac - yes and it could easily narrow the range of possibilities we are aware of.

Michael - yes, areas such as pharma, materials science and genetics. The ones where money is still to be made.