Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Noticing everything

The beaks of Galapagos finches: the significance of the seemingly insignificant


Robert Leslie Fielding

When Charles Darwin sailed the Beagle to the farther corners of the world, he gathered large amounts of information, from which he came to construct his theory of evolution and ultimately to write ‘The Origin of Species’.

It was by noticing minor details in plants, animals and birds that he came to develop his theories about how our own species: homo sapiens, came to evolve into our present day form.

Since those early discoveries and the formulation of such theories scientists have moved on; from the early science of Geology that attempted to reconstruct how the rocks of our planet came to be formed, to the discovery of plate tectonics, which made geologists look at Earth rather as a whole, an almost living thing, rather than just as a series of disconnected parts. Geologists came to realize that the Earth’s crust is still a moving entity, and this has explained how earthquakes and other forms of seismic activity occur and the effect they have upon those living in areas subject to them.

In the development of all the physical sciences, scientists and discoverers have been aware of the importance of what might have seemed trivial, insignificant changes, and the part these ostensibly minor features play in illustrating changes that are perhaps more global.

It is this attention to detail that best illustrates a commitment to academic rigour; not for its own sake, particularly, but because not including the minutiae of phenomenon under scrutiny would be to ignore useful data, sometimes the most useful data, and sometimes the only data in evidence.

Even at undergraduate levels of scientific investigation, this attention to detail, however insignificant it may at first appear, is vital if real gains are to be made in understanding complicated physical processes. A student in a laboratory, undertaking an experiment for the first time, and working without direct supervision, is almost akin to a pioneer working in the partial blindness of ignorance, striving to be enlightened by each and every step of her experiment and the findings and results she gains from it.

Unlike her predecessors, however, the student working in the laboratory, has the advantage of access to the orthodoxies and conventional wisdom of the present, as opposed to a latter day counterpart; technology has allowed us to scrutinize more than could possibly be examined much earlier in the history of scientific discovery; we can look into living organisms without harming or changing the source of our enquiry. We can see further, and in more detail, we can probe deeper to discover processes that evaded our forbears, and yet we should stand in awe of those who used the tools available at the time and who took note of the seemingly insignificant to postulate, later to prove what they had theorised.


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