Monday, May 25, 2015

In an era that worshipped the Big, the Fast and the New, he championed the small, the slow and the old - and changed our whole world not just once but twice

The small and the slow and the old

A Canadian newspaper recently touted some Canadian based scientists as saying that the new techniques allowing the mass sequencing of genomes in test tubes, from DNA gathered up from all over the world, is letting science reveal hidden secrets from the distant past.

Hurray for Man !

Not mentioned is the fact that it is actually bacteria and their enzymes that do all the heavy lifting or that it was a Canadian (Martin Henry Dawson) who first put bacteria and DNA to work in a test tube eighty five long, dusty years ago.


But bacteria slicing and dicing didn't really become popular until sixty years after it first was discovered in the early 1920s.

Instead all interwar genetic efforts (dominated by the big animal oriented zoologists) were focused at the other end of the ladder of progress - on larger beings.

Now we must partially thank the two men usually 'credited' for the discovery and development of bacteria genome splicing for creating this disconnect : because in truth Fred Griffith and Oswald Avery tried very very hard not to publish their results or those of their associates !

But blame the pair only partially.

Because Dawson did publish and broadcast about the importance for all biology of this bacteria gene splicing for the rest of his short life.

 And doing so basically ruined his career.

For daring, in an era devoted to the Big, Fast, and the New, to proclaim to anyone who would listen and to most that would not, that the small, slow and old could do things (genome splicing) that the most advanced human civilizations could not.

And that is precisely what between-the-wars western civilization did not want to hear.


And when in 1940-1944, Dawson said that the small and the slow and the old (penicillium cells) could make life-saving penicillin cheaply and abundantly when the assembled Smartest-Chemists-in-the-Universe couldn't even make it at all, again Science did not want to hear it.

But to this very day, penicillium cells still make all the basic penicillin that forms the base material for virtually all our life-saving antibiotics.

Microbiology technology is the current flavour of the age, with synthetic chemistry very much bringing up the rear.

No scientific discovery will ever go 'unpublished' in the technical sense of the word, if the discoverer wants it published.

But what makes an important new discovery or theory quickly popular ( popular in the sense it is taught in all the major science textbooks from high school to advanced study) is how well it gels with the spirit of the age.

Only in our post modern age, when the idea of a linear ladder of progress  with its easy to pick winners and losers has been firmly rejected by most of the educated public , was it possible for Dawson's scientific claims to win wide scientific acceptance ..

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