Serendipity and scientific discoveries—the discovery of cyclins was accidental (1.4)
The NOS section in the Biology guide tells us that: “Scientists also have to be ready for unplanned, surprising, accidental discoveries.” (p6) I see this as an opportunity to discuss the human side of the scientific process. It is also another good time to link science (biology) to TOK. In TOK, we typically think of the natural sciences as being objective, neutral and based predominantly on Reason as a way of knowing. Meticulous observations, carefully planned experiments and independent verification are seen as the hallmarks of science and what gives it a greater sense of certainty than other areas of knowledge such as the human sciences or history. However, while these are important aspects of science, this ignores the fact that science is practiced by humans and as such, is prone to all the messiness that comes from being human. Further, that like any human endeavour, luck, imagination and creativity are also key parts.
The discovery of cyclins was indeed a serendipitous event. Tim Hunt, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2001 for this discovery, said in his Nobel lecture…”I did not set out on my scientific career with the intention of studying the cell cycle, and had no idea that the winding road of discovery would lead in that direction.”(p1). He began his career studying protein synthesis and took to spending summers in the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, conducting research on mitosis in sea urchins. It was this work that led to the discovery of the cyclins, proteins that were first identified because they peaked in concentration during interphase and then declined rapidly just before cell division.
While Hunt and his fellow researchers were demonstrating all the traits of the scientific method: – well-designed experiments testing out hypotheses – they had no idea of what they might discover and the joy of the unknown is an integral part of science at all levels.
Hunt, T. 2001. Protein synthesis, proteolysis and cell cycle transitions. Nobel Lecture. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2001/hunt-lecture.pdf
IB. 2014. Biology Guide: First Exams 2016. Peterson House, Cardiff.
Jackson, P. K. 2008. The Hunt for Cyclin. Cell. 134; 199-202.
Pulverer, B. n.d. Surfing the cyclin wave. Nature. http://www.nature.com/celldivision/milestones/full/milestone12.html