Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A perspective on science-induced pain

I've been reading some of the early papers about T7, starting with papers published almost 40 years ago. Apart from the "Oh, so that's how & when they figured that out" factor, an equally interesting facet is that reading these papers with the benefit of the current state of knowledge means seeing science in action, so to speak -- watching the transition from early ideas [with varying degrees of "correctness"] to our current understanding, with various course corrections along the way.

Certain paragraphs also serve as a sharp reminder of the fact that, not too long ago, scientists had to walk barefoot, blindfolded, through snow, uphill both ways, to figure things out. Consider the following excerpt [from here]:

"Weiss and Richardson (1967) have shown that the 5' end of the poly-G-binding strand terminates in pApG----, and the 5' end of the complementary strand terminates in pTpC----. It is also known (as discussed extensively by several workers in the Cold Spring Harbor Symposium on The Genetic Code, Volume 31, 1966) that RNA chains grow in the 5' to 3' direction, protein chains grow from the amino terminal to the carboxyl terminal end, and translation of messenger RNA proceeds from 5' to 3'."

In other words, around the time this paper was published:
- Determining the last/first 2 nucleotides of a DNA sequence was considered a genuine scientific achievement. Systematic sequencing was still almost 10 years in the future, and the sequence of the first bacterial genome was 20 years away. In contrast, nowadays if you're not determining [and analyzing] millions or billions of nucleotides, you're not doing anything noteworthy.
- The details of how proteins are encoded in DNA, and the direction in which DNA and RNA are "read", had only been established 3 years ago, and was worth discussing at scientific conferences. This is stuff that kids learn in high school today.

Summary: biology was Really, Really Hard back then, and we didn't know very much, which must have meant a lot of fumbling around trying stuff. And yet people kept at it. I suppose the lesson is that I should stop whining about lab work and just get on with it, so that 40 years from now, my grandkids can say "Wow, you guys didn't know that back then ? How did you manage to do anything ? Hardcore !" before flapping their bio-engineered wings and flying away.

But it also brings up questions: is science-induced pain conserved ? In other words, are we now trying to do things/answer questions that are so much more complicated than what folks X years ago were doing that, despite our increased knowledge and technical capabilities, the work is still just as difficult ? Is there a minimum level of knowledge and technical capability below which doing stuff is order-of-magnitude more difficult, and above which the pain stays pretty constant or even decreases ?


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