BRIANWAVE COLUMN No 33: December 1996

Au Revoir

Brian J Ford

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Out in the hills a molecular biologist was camping with a friend. They were spending two weeks recapturing their roots, and decided to barbecue a sheep. Along a lane he found a farmer who said he liked to bet. ‘If I could perform a really amazing feat, would you give me one of those sheep?’ he asked. The farmer agreed, but added, ‘It had better be good.’

The man smiled and told him he could count them in a glance. The farmer said, ‘Not a chance. It took me an hour to come up with the figure.’ The scientist ran his eye over the flock. ‘I work with mathematics all day,’ he said. And then - after the shortest of pauses - he announced his result. ‘Two hundred and forty-seven animals in that field,’ he stated. ‘That’s incredible,’ said the farmer. ‘Exactly right.’ Within a minute, the scientist was back at the gate, his choice under his arm. ‘Before you go,’ said the farmer, ‘Can I have a go? Can I place a bet with you, to see if I can win it back? I reckon I could guess your job.’ The scientist chuckled. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘That’s probably harder than what I guessed, so go ahead.’ The farmer beamed. ‘You’re a molecular biologist,’ he said. The scientist was astonished. ‘How ever did you guess that?’ he asked. Said the smiling farmer, ‘Oh, we have our ways. Now - give me back my dog.’

Don’t laugh. Well, do. But not enough to stem the flow, for this raises a serious point. Modern science is still retreating into its specialities. Much of what passes for modern science is nothing of the sort: it consists of technicians doing repetitive tests in areas they rarely relate to a greater whole.

The way I do it, science reaches across the disparate disciplines to bring knowledge from a scattered catchment into a single focus. Trying to change something so entrenched is a huge challenge, and enormous fun. I don’t doubt this is how science must be in the future and, of course, it is beginning to nudge this way as the years go by.

I don’t have a mission statement, though one recent medical journal said something far better than I could compose: ‘Dissatisfied with the tendency in modern science towards narrowness, fascination with high technology, obscurantism and zeal for publishing, Ford sets out to recommend an approach to science based on the natural philosopher’s desire to understand, clarify and communicate.’ I only wish I could have put it as well but I've never expressed my motivations with such analytical clarity. We have just received another article which says I am ‘an extreme realist who demonstrates that rich, detailed observations often contradict theory.’ I suppose ‘extreme realist’ is close to the mark.

From this month I shall be doing it all without sharing thoughts with you. The editorial board conclude that it’s time for a change, and I am all for change. To whoever inhabits this space from next month, I extend a hearty welcome. My advice? Nothing, really; just get on with it, and move in quick before the ink dries.

To the readers (you tolerant bunch) thanks, a very Happy Christmas, and goodbye.

Last in the series. The previous article is available, so is the 'BrianWave' title index.

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