Though the years have marched by with apparent indifference, the world is still in recovery, still haunted by the shocking appearance of Alaskan beast far worse than those of Native American
lore, more repulsive than the Sasquatch or Wendigo. This creature did not emerge from the Sea of Japan to crush cities underfoot in retribution. No, this monster came to us in the much less threatening guise of a concerned mother, bible in one hand, and a high-powered rifle in the other; Governor Sarah Palin was thrust into the public eye in 2008 as a hopeful vice president under John McCain, and she has remained attached to the political establishment ever since like a blood-engorged tick.
Her sphere of influence has grown through books, newspaper columns and even a potential second run for the vice presidency. None of which would be very alarming, if it weren’t for the fact what she utters is so frighteningly banal; so ill-considered and ill-informed, that we’re forced to ruminate over the sad fact that worryingly ignorant people occupy very high offices.
There’s nothing new in this, I suppose. People have perennially lamented the limited mental capacities of their leaders, and arguably only Marcus Aurelius approached anything like the idealistic philosopher-king envisioned by Plato. However, one particular ‘Palinism’ has stuck in my mind. In a pre-election interview Palin was asked her thoughts on science funding, to which she responded that she thinks the US government has been lax in its allocation, she expressed concern that scientists were wasting time and tax-payers money; essentially just dicking around for the hell of it. Her example? She cited the existence of scientists in France who are exploring fruit fly genetics, “I mean can you imagine? Fruit flies” she repeated indignantly, implying that she considers this to be as useful as burning piles of cash outright. There would be none of this time-wasting fuckwittery from the scientific community if she were in charge.
Now this ignorance is understandable on the face of it, high school biology was probably a long time ago for the Governor, so how was she to know that the fruit fly is the most widely used, and arguably most useful, model organism in genetics; and through studying it we have learned nearly everything we know about heredity, development and genetic disorders. Its rapid growth and reproduction, abnormally large chromosomes, and low maintenance, make it ideal for an varied array of investigations into genetics, pharmacology, developmental biology etc. etc.
Flies though. It just sounds so much like scientists are using a much time and energy to investigate pointless questions. You can imagine the rusty cogs of Palin’s brain, and others like hers, grinding in consternation: Didn’t scientists once put an ear on a mouse? They probably make crabs run on treadmills and stick extra legs on badgers just for fun, the useless bastards.
There does seem to be a pernicious public conception of scientists of overly-curious star-gazers, heads in the clouds, examining phenomena that only they find interesting, answering questions no one asked, diverting resources away from more pressing matters. Shouldn’t all biologists be trying to cure cancer all the time? In fact this notion of aimless scientists predates science itself; a play aptly named ‘The Clouds’ written by Aristophanes satirized Socrates by imagining a fictional school of enquiry called ‘The Thinkery’, with Socrates as the head who announces, after tireless work, that he has devised a unit of measurement to determine how far a flea jumps, a comically useless enterprise according to Aristophanes. So Palin certainly isn’t the first to worry that the great ‘thinkers’ of the day have more money, and more curiosity, than sense. But she is, quite frankly, wrong.
This conception of scientists as overly-curious time wasters, divorced from the real world and absorbed in their pointless and endless puzzles, is not only naïve, but even if it were accurate, it would still be a worthwhile pursuit and worth every penny that is put into it. Here’s why:
Firstly, as with the fruit fly genetics example, what looks on the surface to be an esoteric and useless avenue of enquiry is in fact a very ingenious and more efficient way to study a very important problem. As noted above, fruit flies have made it easy to study heredity in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in other organisms, and helped us to unravel the mysteries of gene networks that govern development. The scientists aren’t interested in the fly’s development per se, although after years working with them I’m sure they develop a certain fondness for the bastards, but more for what they reveal of the common principles and important genes with homologues in humans, for instance, they can infer laws and principles with speed and manipulate the flies in ways that it would be unethical to do so in higher organisms. This holds true for most any other case you can name where it appears that scientists lost themselves in some pointless endeavour, usually the overly-specific and seemingly useless problem they are addressing is part of some greater whole, or indirect method of getting an important conundrum, whose solution will be of great benefit to mankind.
The other reason this view of scientists as time-wasters is flawed is that even if they are just star-gazing, listless students of the ‘Thinkery’ as Aristophanes would have it, the massive element of serendipity and luck that exists in science still means useful discoveries would be made all the time. 19th century physicists analysing the light spectrum of the sun noticed small gaps in the spectra, explained only by the existence of a new element, called ‘helium’ (from helios: sun). The gaps in the spectra of light absorbed by different atoms also helped pave the way for the understanding of atomic structure, and thus eventually the quantum revolution itself. Now arguably the entire quantum revolution is arguably just as esoteric and irrelevant itself to the general public, most of us live our lives entirely and blissfully unaware of the mathematical descriptions of electrons and their behaviour. Only, as Brian Cox points out, silicon transistors which comprise a broad swathe of our modern technology are a purely quantum phenomenon, only possible to be built only once we understood this esoteric and pointless world of the electron.
Literally by staring into the sky and wondering about the nature of sunlight, and peering down into the energy absorbed by atoms, perhaps the two most extreme examples of arcane and abstruse behaviour, there occurred the discovery of a new element, and a quantum revolution, without which a great deal of our modern luxuries wouldn’t exist.
Back to Governor Palin. Yes there are geneticists in France, and most developed nations actually, working all day, every day on fruit flies. They have taught us a great deal, and continue to do so. Yes there are physicists who spend night after night in observatories, staring into the deep expanse of space, and others who delve into the impossibly small world of the atoms, and both of these groups have completely changed the edifice of technology and innovation in the past, and will do again in the future no doubt. However seemingly random and esoteric a scientific problem may appear, it just isn’t a good barometer of how beneficial the results might be. A revolution is always around the corner and they come from the funniest places. As it happens Socrates’ name has far out shined that of Aristophanes, and although ‘The Clouds’ was supposed to satirize the perils of thinking too deeply, historically it is in fact always been those with their heads in the clouds who made the greatest and most impacting discoveries. Now if only those in charge of allocating science funding were aware of this then people like Palin would concern me a lot less.