Science needs to see both the forests and the trees

My wife and I were married in Germany while I was in the military. None of our family was present. Some weeks later, we had a rather typical newlywed conversation.

Wife: I wonder what our children will be like.

Husband: Mmmmm.

Wife: I mean, I wonder if they will have as much trouble with their teeth as I have.

Husband: Dunno.

Wife: Do you think they’ll have trouble with their eyes like your family?

Husband: My family doesn’t have trouble with their eyes. 

Wife: Well, what about your mother’s crossed eyes?

(Long pause.)

Husband: What?

Wife: Your mother’s crossed eyes. 

(Another long pause.)

Husband: Oh yeah? Well, your mother ... !

We’ll end the actual discussion there in the name of social sensibilities. The point is I did not think my mother had crossed eyes.

In 1966 there were no cellphones, and calling from Europe was beyond the means of a PFC. Besides, calling your mother to ask if she has crossed eyes would have been a bit awkward, to say the least. So we had to wait almost 18 months to resolve the conflict. Never was a boy so anxious to see his mother, except that she did have crossed eyes. My wife was correct.

My wife thinks this story is terribly funny. To me it seems perfectly sensible. What young boy ever really looks his mother in the eye? I mean, c’mon, she would know!

Science begins with observation. There is a reason why early scientists, from the 1700s and 1800s on, were almost all artists. Artists have the ability to really see. Without careful observation there can be no patterns discerned or hypotheses formed. If you browse through scientific journals from the 1800s and early 1900s, you will find page after page of hand-drawn illustrations.

Of course, early scientists did not have the full availability of cameras, microscopes or telescopes that we have today. They were forced to rely on hand illustrations, and there was no one else to make them. Today, with all of our modern digital imaging and data-collecting devices, young scientists are often surprised to learn that a drawing can sometimes be more truthful than a photograph.

For example, when focusing through a microscope, the plane of focus, that area of the field that is in focus, may be very small, less than the width of a nucleus inside a cell. Consequently, if a cell possesses two nuclei, one deeper than another, only one may show up in a photograph. The camera-dependent scientist has to take multiple pictures at different planes of focus to show all the structures of the cell. In fact, all of the cell structures are probably never visible in a single photograph.

The artist, on the other hand, can focus up and down and include several views in his drawing so that one can see the depth of the structure, and have a more complete view. Thus the drawing may actually be more accurate, in some respects, than the photograph.

Modern imaging and measuring devices often allow scientists to look in places, and observe events, that they were previously unable to see. Using these tools doesn’t always mean that we are observing accurately. Often, by looking so closely, we don’t see the surroundings. There is a tendency in modern science to see the details, but miss the overall pattern.

I recall watching educated scientists wade into water in bare feet to collect specimens of snails that carried a dangerous parasite. The parasite used the snail as an intermediate host, but infected and caused damage to humans.  Interestingly, there was a sign posted in plain sight stating that the waters were infested. The scientists obviously understood the details, but not the reality. Or maybe they just weren’t very observant.

Anyway, one can’t be a real scientist until learning to observe carefully, even if it means looking his mother directly in the eye.

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


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