Debbie Knight

Looking without seeing: missing the obvious?

In observation on February 8, 2012 at 9:00 am

Side bar story from Science News, January 28 2012

This little sidebar article caught my attention while I was reading Science News.

What stopped me in my tracks was this line:

“Some scientists now say hydrothermal vents could have been discovered … a decade earlier if scientists had realized what they were seeing.”

I wonder how many discoveries have been overlooked simply because the observer did not recognize a phenomenon as something worth noting.

It made me look at my own research career. I wonder if I have overlooked something seemingly obvious in my 20 years at the lab bench simply because I didn’t “know” what I was seeing. (I certainly hope not. But it’s entirely possible.)

To cut the oceanographers some slack, perhaps scientists weren’t ready to consider that life could exist under such extremes or the photographic equipment available in 1966 wasn’t as sophisticated as it is now.

Whether it was due to a lack of sufficient existing knowledge base or that the observation was so inconceivable it was dismissed, it is amazing to find that a discovery of this magnitude could be missed.

Louis Pasteur once said, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” And in this case, it may have been true.

But it stands as a shining example that scientists need to remain open-minded (and I mean, wide open-minded) when they interpret experimental results.

Take for instance the discovery of micro RNAs — those tiny pieces of RNA molecules previously thought to be junk turned out to be important in the regulation of gene expression. Their discovery has made our understanding of how genetic material is expressed and passed on to the next generation that much more complicated.

It also bears to question if we have so narrowly defined the term “life” that we may overlook a another extraterrestial lifeform simply because it doesn’t fit our definition.

What gives me hope is that although a discovery may not be immediately recognized by a single researcher, given enough time and enough independent observations, the discovery will be made.

In the case of discovering life teeming around hydrothermal vents, it may have taken a decade but the observations were spectacular!

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