14 April 2010

Science concerns itself with trifles

In the introduction to The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms, Charles Darwin wrote:

The subject may appear an insignificant one, but we shall see that it possesses some interest; and the maxim "de minimis lex non curat*," does not apply to science.
Darwin was referring to the study of earthworms. He was, of course, correct that a real scientist can not and should not dismiss a research project, especially in natural history, because it may appear insignificant and unimportant to his restricted worldview. There is so much remains undiscovered in the life sciences that one can often not tell beforehand what unexpected results a particular research project may lead to.

I read Peter Medawar's book Advice To A Young Scientist many years ago in graduate school. If I am remembering it correctly, Medawar was of the opinion that a young scientist would be better off not wasting his time with what he thought were trifle projects. By the time I finished Medawar's book I was so annoyed with his ideas and arrogance that I threw it away.

I'd rather stick with Darwin.

*The law does not concern itself with trifles.


fred schueler said...

Amen! and the virtue of Science over Philosophy is that the scientist picks tractable problems, which have a chance of being solved, and then cumulatively adding up to a big answer, instead of attacking the big problems head on with no chance of knowing how right or wrong the resulting answer may be.

Dave said...

Interesting. Perhaps Medawar's advice was simply prescient and anticipating the era of Big Government funding Big Science to solve Big Problems. Well, perhaps ‘solve’ is the wrong verb.