I noticed, while working for other people in science, a very important change take place with the advent of the computer and the internet.
In the Olden Days (before about 1990) we used to use a little periodical called ‘Current Contents’. It listed all the contents pages of all the main journals and we’d browse it for new papers relevant to our work. Then we’d go and look up the papers. All of this was done with paper copies, no screens at all.
There was also ‘the stacks’ in the basement of the library, where the pre-1970 copies of journals were stored. In really big libraries ‘the stacks’ were immense and smelled of old paper. I spent a lot of time down there as a student and as a researcher.
Then computers arrived. We all thought this was great. No more rummaging about in paper journals, no more looking for a particular copy to find it loaned out, lost or wrongly shelved. It was all there, on screen. Type in a keyword and the university account let you access an e-copy of all related papers right there and then. If one of them was relevant to what you were doing, you could print it. Fantastic. Except…
They only digitised back to 1980. In many cases not as far back as that. It wasn’t long before I started noticing new papers with revelations of things that I had read in papers from the 1960s and 1970s. The authors had only looked on the computer and found no prior work. All that science prior to computerisation simply ceased to exist.
Hundreds of years of work gone, just like that. Have you seen the clinical trials proving the safety of blood transfusions? No, you haven’t because there have never been any. It’s accepted that there must have been, it must have been done well before computers started storing. If you want to sell a new type of food you have to go through all kinds of hoops but an untested procedure is in use every day. Don’t come back with ‘it must be safe, it’s been in use for a long time’ because while that works for me, it really should not wash with the modern obsession with regulation and testing. Everything must be proven safe now.
Nicotine patches and gum have been proven safe. Well of course they are safe. They don’t do anything. The quit rate with those things is less than the quit rate from people who just decide one day ‘Nah, I don’t want to do this any more’. So they are safe. Useless, but safe.
Homeopathy is, I think, still available on the NHS because it’s safe. It relies on the ‘memory of water’ which has been proven to be nonsense. Even if it hadn’t been, homeopathy uses dilutions to levels that can’t contain any of the original compound and little to nothing of the water it was originally dissolved in, so ‘memory of water’ still won’t work. It’s safe though. Probably safer than what comes out of your tap.
What triggered this rant was a story about a new miracle discovered by researchers – that microorganisms can communicate with each other. We microbiologists called this ‘quorum sensing’ many years ago but it’s probably scrolled off the researchers’ radar and they maybe didn’t bother to look at bacteria.
Oh, and no, it does not suggest at all that the sea might be conscious. Not in the slightest.
There is a bacterium called Erwinia that ruins potatoes by causing blackleg (the base of the stem rots away) or by rotting the actual spuds. Potatoes can defend against this beast so it needs to attack as a mob. A few attacking will get wiped out.
What Erwinia does is to stick to a plant and start reproducing. It makes no attempt to infect at this stage. Every cell releases a chemical, and every other cell can detect that chemical. When the chemical reaches a certain concentration, the cells ‘know’ there are enough of them to beat the potato’s defences and they switch into infection mode.
It’s not the only one. Salmonella does this too. Many other pathogens use this trick. Some bacteria can eavesdrop on other species’ quorum sensing chemicals to gain a food advantage. It’s no surprise to find that sea microbes do it too. We’ve known about this for a very long time.
Yet here it is again as if it has only just been discovered, and extrapolated to grant salty water sentience. We don’t consider those chatty bacteria sentient. They have just developed a chemical system in response to having the shit regularly kicked out of them by a potato, which has to be embarrassing even for a bacterium. They react to chemical concentrations. That is all. They are not thinking.
Neither is the sea. It’s far too busy being wet and wavey. Rather like our Prime Monster, who shows less evidence of intelligence than plankton.
Nobody looks back at old papers any more. Strangely, the old ones that seem to support anti-things get recorded on the net. Not much else does.
It does help the Righteous to have a population who think science began in 1980. They can invent drink limits and pretend that essential nutrients like salt are bad for you and act as though everyone died in 1950 when about 80% of people smoked and much, much more. If scientists aren’t checking, why would politicians? Politicians are too busy watching porn on taxpayer funded computers, drinking taxpayer subsidised booze and smoking cigars the rest of us can only dream of trying because we’re skint after paying for theirs. They have no time left to mess about checking facts. Pity them, for they are useless.
Computers are great things. I have a lot of them. I can go and look up anything and some of it might even be true. I can talk to people in countries I have never visited and will probably never be able to afford to visit. I can send books to publishers in America and I can self-publish with a couple of keyboard taps (well, a bit more than that, I never get the format right first time) and have stuff available to the entire planet in a matter of hours.
But I am wondering if computers might be what killed science. The truncation of those vast libraries of knowledge to the last thirty years, the training of students to use online sources instead of rummaging in ‘the stacks’, the loss of all that prior research to dusty tomes in forgotten basements. It’s like the burning of the Library of Alexandria all over again.
Only this time it’s not burned. It’s all still there. On ageing paper.
But nobody reads it.