The Speed of Science

by James Morris

“Transmitted by mosquitoes, the Zika virus is expected to spread rapidly to include the United States.” On the day  this sentence was written, it was accurate. By the very next day, it wasn’t.

Illustrated by Talia Niederman

Illustrated by Talia Niederman

The Zika virus has been known for some time, ever since it was isolated in 1947 from the Zika forest in Uganda, where the virus gets its name. Infection with the virus is most often asymptomatic (in other words, it doesn’t cause any symptoms and the person does not even know that he or she is infected). Sometimes, it causes fever, rash, red eyes, and joint pain.

Zika is receiving more attention for two reasons: First, it is quickly spreading around the globe. Recently, it arrived in Brazil. From there, it spread to other parts of South America. Then to Central America and the Caribbean. Second, there is a link between infection with the virus during pregnancy and certain birth defects, with microcephaly being the most devastating.

Illustrated by Talia Niederman

Illustrated by Talia Niederman

The sentence above was written on February 2, 2016 as part of an introductory biology textbook I work on. Textbooks sometimes get criticized for being out of date as soon as they are published. Fortunately, because much textbook material is now online, many textbook authors, including my co-authors and I, are able to keep it current.

On February 3, 2016, CNN reported the first case of sexual transmission of the virus. In Texas. So transmission isn’t just by mosquitoes. And the Zika virus is no longer expected to spread to the US. It’s already here.

So the sentence didn’t quite work anymore. I needed to change it to, “Transmitted by mosquitoes as well as sexually, Zika virus has been found in the United States and is expected to spread rapidly to include most of North America.”

This experience reminded me about how quickly science moves at times. This rapid pace is well known to anyone who tries to follow any area of science. It is now almost impossible to keep up with the research literature, as new papers come out every day, even every hour. As a result, the amount of scientific information is indeed staggering.

Some of this pace is real. But some have questioned whether science is really moving as fast as it seems. And, as many writers have pointed out, the flurry of papers is in part the result of a system that rewards number of papers over quality of papers in decisions about promotion, tenure, and grants.

However, against this backdrop, there is another way to look at the pace of change in science: There is also the sense that science moves at a more measured, even slow pace.

The textbook I work on provides an example here too. My co-authors and I recently published the second edition of the textbook. The question I usually get from families and friends about this new edition is, “Did science really change that much in just three years?”

The answer is no. There are a few advances, like CRISPR, that we added. CRISPR is a powerful gene-editing tool borrowed from bacteria that is revolutionizing research and has important applications in medicine. And turtles, in spite of their famously slow pace, seem to jump around the vertebrate evolutionary tree like hares, requiring frequent updating.

In other fields, the exciting, recent discovery of gravitational waves, predicted by Einstein in the early 20th century, will certainly find its way into introductory physics textbooks.

Although some of the changes from edition to edition certainly relate to science content, much of it relates to pedagogy – new activities that can be used to promote active learning in the classroom, additional questions for students to practice what they  learn, explanations that are clearer, useful feedback from instructors and students; and the like.

So, although new papers come out every day, these discoveries do not fundamentally change what’s in an introductory science textbook. In this way, science tends to move slowly. Looking at textbooks over a longer period, we do see important changes. One of the most obvious is the emergence of the field of genomics, where scientists sequence and annotate all of the DNA (the genome) of many different organisms, including humans. This material is not just added; increasingly, it is being used as a framework to organize the sections about genetic information in cells and organisms.

Yet, even in the rapidly moving field of genomics, we are sometimes frustrated by its slow pace. The complete sequence of the human genome was published in 2003. It cost about 1 billion dollars and took 13 years to complete. Today, we can sequence whole genomes for a few thousand dollars in a day or two.

And yet, in spite of rapid advances in sequencing technologies and everything we have learned about genomes from these remarkable efforts, we are still far from reaping the benefits. We still only have the glimmers of an understanding of which genes contribute to common traits, like human height, and common diseases, like high blood pressure, or how to use this understanding to come up with better treatments.

Cancer provides another example about the slow pace of science. In 1971, 45 years ago, President Richard Nixon declared a War on Cancer. Today, we are far from winning it. Of course, we have made tremendous progress, particularly for some childhood cancers, but the protean nature of the disease has resisted quick and easy solutions. Hence, in 2015, we declared another War on Cancer, this time led by Vice-President Joe Biden.

Dr. Ole Frobert, quoted in The New York Times in an article on how the study of hibernating bears might help to one day solve human problems, said, “Medical research in a way is in a crisis because we do a lot of research and publish a lot of papers, but there are very few breakthroughs.”

How can we reconcile the fast and slow pace of science? One way is to look at scientific knowledge as a kind of steady bedrock, with lots of activity and progress on the edges. These advances are important, but they don’t shake the foundation. Only occasionally does our understanding shift in truly seismic ways – the revolutions ushered in by Copernicus, Darwin, and Einstein come to mind.

KuhnThis is what Thomas Kuhn in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions described as a “paradigm shift.” Scientists tend to work in a given world-view, or paradigm, making progress, adding to knowledge, but constrained (or, looked at another way, enabled) by the framework in which they work. Every once in a while, there is a major change, a shift, allowing scientists to see the world in a new way and begin to ask new questions that they did not even consider before.

Or, as Carlo Rovelli, in his Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, writes, “We not only learn, but we also learn to gradually change our conceptual framework and adapt it to what we learn.”

This steady, slow march of science punctuated by shifts, though achingly slow at times, can be healthy – it allows time for scientists to replicate results, question findings, and answer the same questions using different methods or techniques.

In other words, it makes it more likely that we will eventually get things right and therefore have a more complete, accurate, and beautiful view of the world.

© James Morris and Science Whys, 2016.

3 thoughts on “The Speed of Science

  1. Maria Miara

    So does science progress under a punctuated equilibrium or gradualism model? A great post. Talia’s illustrations are stunning! Hopefully we’ll be seeing more of them in the future?

    1. James Morris Post author

      I hope so too.
      I also like the connection you make between scientific “progress” and gradualism/punctuated equilibrium. I hadn’t thought about it that way before, but I guess Kuhn might say punctuated equilibrium. I think it could include elements of both.


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