In most textbooks it seems like scientists just waltz into their labs, fiddle around for a bit, then wait for the Nobel Committee to call. Sadly, the road to discovery is rarely that simple, and speed bumps pop up constantly. Call it historical context or call it dirt; there's always more to the story.
1. Give Peas a Chance
Who would have guessed that Gregor Mendel (1822 - 1884), the "father of modern genetics," began his work in remedial training? In 1843 Mendel was an ordained priest attempting to get a job teaching natural science at a local school in Brno, Moravia. Problem was, he failed the teaching certificate exam. No social promotions allowed here; to fix him up, his abbot had Mendel attend the University of Vienna to study physical and biological sciences. Sticking with it seems to have worked. At Vienna, Mendel began his legendary work with pea plants, which demonstrated that patterns of inheritance hold from peas to humans. Oh, and even though his work in genetics remained unrecognized by scientists until the 1900s, Mendel did achieve his goals. He finally received his teaching certificate, taught high school, and became the abbot of his monastery.
2. Naturally Selected
Charles Darwin (1809 - 1882), a young graduate from the University of Cambridge, almost didn't get to go on the 1831 voyage of the HMS Beagle, the five-year voyage that provided the basis for Darwin's historic Origin of Species. Initially, the ship's captain wanted to reject him based on the shape of his nose. It seems Captain Fitz-Roy judged a man's character by his profile, and Darwin's nose just didn't indicate "sufficient energy and determination." Also, Darwin's father thought the trip was a frivolous attempt to avoid getting a real job (like joining the clergy). What to do? A three-day test voyage with the captain and a well-worded letter from Darwin's uncle soon removed the barriers, and Darwin was on his way.
3. Rest in Peace Prize
Many people have heard about Watson and Crick, the dynamic duo of DNA. Fewer have heard of Rosalind Franklin, unless they've heard about the Nobel controversy. Franklin (1920 - 1958) took the X-ray photographs that are credited with making DNA structure clear to Watson and Crick and leading to the Nobel Prize the men shared with Maurice Wilkins. So, why didn't she just look at the picture and see it herself? Well, for one thing, an X-ray diffraction picture looks a lot like children's spin-art. Taking such pictures is difficult and interpreting them, an art. Also, many times breakthroughs require the perspectives of people from different areas. But was Rosalind Franklin denied a Nobel Prize due to sexism? Absolutely not. The proof: Watson, Crick, and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962. Franklin died of ovarian cancer four years earlier, and Nobels are not awarded posthumously.
4. Albert in Wonderland
One safety rule for scientists is "Don't eat in the lab." Albert Hofmann's (1908-) choice to ignore that rule took him not just down a different path but on a whole new kind of trip. In 1938, while trying to develop treatments for migraine headaches, Hofmann made a new chemical, but then had to leave work early due to feelings of "not unpleasant delirium." The next day he thought that there might be a connection between the chemical he inhaled accidentally and his altered mood, so he did the next logical (albeit crazy) thing. He ate some. The chemical was lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, and that day Hofmann became the first person ever to "drop acid." LSD has some therapeutic potential, but LSD abuse led Sandoz to stop producing it in 1966.
5. Cell Block
As a little guy, what do you do when your results fly in the face of current dogma? This was Leonard Hayflick's dilemma. In the 1960s scientists knew that if they put cells in a petri dish with the right nutrients and enough room, the cell culture would stay alive and keep dividing indefinitely. However, Leonard Hayflick and Paul Moorhead had evidence that fibroblast cells in culture would divide only a certain number of times (about 50), and then they would die. To confirm their findings and convince skeptics, these young guns had colleagues working in leading labs, repeating their experiments. Good try, but it didn't work. Hayflick's first paper describing the work was rejected because it was contrary to the current line of thinking. Fortunately, the pair persevered and the paper was published in a different scientific journal. The evidence was so compelling that other research listened and the entire field of biogerontology, the study of how cells age, was born.
From mental_floss' book Condensed Knowledge: A deliciously Irreverent Guide to Feeling Smart Again, published in Neatorama with permission.
[Update 3/15/07: Original article written by Karen Bernd, Ph.D., professor of biology at Davidson College in Davidson, NC.]
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