American liberty includes freedom to pursue failed science experiments

This column was composed on the Fourth of July to celebrate the freedom scientists have in the United States. No one is forced to become a scientist in America. And, for the most part, we are free to choose which field of science to pursue and what we want to investigate.

Of course, a person can be persuaded to become a scientist by good pay, intellectual desires, nice working conditions, and risky experiments involving such things as diseases or explosives. I should warn anyone interested in becoming a scientist, though, that there is a whole lot less sex and violence in the sciences than you might think from what modern sci-fi movies portray. 

I hear that, in some countries, they force people to become scientists. I can’t quite imagine how that would work. You can’t make people think, let alone think in a specific way. You have to hand it to schools though. They keep trying.

The truth is, science is open to anyone who wants to be involved. However, most people don’t want to do experiments just for fun if they can convince someone else to give them money to do it. And other people only want to give money to scientists to investigate something that has even greater value to the person providing the money — like more money. 

But America’s scientists are free to investigate whatever they want. So how do they make up their mind? You might think that someone ought to do something about malaria, but the people who have malaria basically don’t have much money, so few scientists study it. And you may question some of the things scientists do investigate, but often it is merely because someone is giving them your tax money to do it. 

When money doesn’t do the trick, scientists can be encouraged to investigate specific phenomenon by threat of violence. After all, we’re only human. There are governments in the world that do this. I imagine this is not much fun since governments usually want to investigate boring subjects like building better methods of killing large numbers of people.   

Anyway, that very-limited scope of investigations must be terribly unrewarding. That is, if you don’t count “escaping violence” as a reward. I am grateful no one makes me do anything in the United States except obey 13 trillion laws. I can do research on whatever I want — and can afford. 

I did an experiment for fun just the other day. I’ve been worried about my bees in this heat. So, I tilted the lid of their hive just the width of a stick to help ventilation. Then I got this idea. My wife had finished off a plastic, gallon milk jug. I rinsed it out, filled it with ice water, and set it on top of the hive’s flat, now tilted, aluminum lid. Then I poked a couple of tiny holes in the bottom of the jug so the water could trickle out and run across the hot lid to cool it. The trickling began, and I went off to tend to other matters. 

A couple of hours later, I checked on my system only to discover that the plastic had melted into a blob the size of a softball and sealing off the tiny holes.

The experiment wasn’t a complete failure, though, because now I know it doesn’t work. A lot of my research has been valuable for eliminating ideas that don’t work. It’s become a specialized scientific discipline that I have been lucky enough, and free enough, to develop. 

There are a lot of theories out there, and someone must find the ones that don’t work. I discovered early that I had a natural talent for this sort of thing. Because I live in America, where I am free to develop whatever talents a person has, I have had quite a career of weeding out the things that don’t work. 

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor emeritus of biological sciences at Colorado Mesa University.


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