Science: for the sheer fun of it!

Image: Robert Hooke, 1665. Micrographia. Jo. Martyn and Ja. Allestry, London.

Image: Robert Hooke, 1665. Micrographia. Jo. Martyn and Ja. Allestry, London.

Despite fre­quently expressed assump­tions to the con­trary, sci­ence – whether it’s bot­any or some lesser intel­lec­tual pur­suit – isn’t always about hav­ing an idea and under­tak­ing an exper­i­ment to test it. Anyway, that type of invest­ig­a­tion can be hard work. Fortunately, there is an altern­at­ive approach that basic­ally stud­ies ‘what’s there’ and muses on why that might be (or not…), so-called blue skies research.  Sadly, the lat­ter type of sci­ence – which I think is much more fun and inter­est­ing – is less likely to get fin­anced than the ‘there’s a def­in­ite ques­tion that we aim to answer’ type of study, and is gen­er­ally much less com­mon. Nice then to see that, in con­ver­sa­tion with Sarah Williams in the Howard Hughes’ Medical Institute’s Fall 2013 issue of the HHMI BulletinDr Richard Flavell (Sterling Professor of Immunobiology at Yale School of Medicine) pro­motes the view that observation-driven stud­ies have a place in sci­ence. He goes fur­ther in say­ing that, ‘there’s noth­ing wrong with a lab team doing obser­va­tional study after obser­va­tional study. They are still help­ing advance the sci­ence, and likely provid­ing fod­der for hypothesis-driven stud­ies to come…’. Now that is my kind of sci­ence. I do hope those who fund research are listen­ing to – and heed­ing – this!

Unfortunately, I sus­pect the more usual reac­tion to requests to fin­ance such work from the grant-awarding bod­ies would be sim­ilar to that which promp­ted this acknow­ledge­ment in a sci­entific paper: ‘I thank the National Science Foundation for reg­u­larly reject­ing my (hon­est) grant applic­a­tions for work on real organ­isms (cf. Szent-Gyorgyi, 1972)…’ (from Leigh Van Valen’s* paper, ‘A new Evolutionary Law’). But occa­sion­ally stud­ies along the lines of ‘let’s just see what turns up’ do appear. Take, for example, Michael Proctor and Margaret Bradshaw’s first in a planned series of papers on scan­ning elec­tron micro­scopy (SEM) exam­in­a­tion of leaves of British sedges in New Journal of Botany**. Acknowledging that the abil­ity to identify sedges in the field is import­ant to many veget­a­tion stud­ies but recog­nising that inflor­es­cences are avail­able for only a short period each year, the pair have con­cen­trated on SEM stud­ies of leaf sur­faces to assist those iden­ti­fic­a­tion endeav­ours. Whilst the duo don’t advoc­ate tak­ing a SEM into the field, they do believe that such SEM stud­ies will be ‘use­ful in put­ting leaf char­ac­ters on a firmer foot­ing, and draw­ing atten­tion to char­ac­ters which could be use­ful for iden­ti­fic­a­tion with a hand-lens or low power micro­scope’ (which can be taken into the field…). The images need to be seen to be prop­erly appre­ci­ated, but the ima­ging of epi­cutic­u­lar waxes in, for example, Figure 1f attests to their high qual­ity. Bring on Part 2!

[For those expect­ing to read about ‘bot­an­ist’ Richard Flavell PhD, FRS, CBE, former Director of the John Innes Centre, etc, I’m sorry to ‘dis­ap­point’ – Ed.]

* Leigh van Valen is an American evol­u­tion­ary bio­lo­gist prob­ably best known for the Red Queen Hypothesis.

** this is the offi­cial organ of the BSBI,  the lead­ing soci­ety in Britain and Ireland for the study of plant dis­tri­bu­tion and tax­onomy. The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland was formerly called the Botanical Society of the British Isles, and rep­res­ents a name change every bit as slick as that of the WWF (which changed from World Wildlife Fund to World Wide Fund for Nature in 1986), and which also allows it to keep its abbre­vi­ation of BSBI (which is an ini­tial­ism not an acronym) the same. The New Journal of Botany is itself the suc­cessor to the BSBI’s Watsonia journal, named in hon­our of Hewett Cottrell Watson (one of the “most col­our­ful fig­ures in the annals of British botany”) who developed the vice-county sys­tem in 1852 that cur­rently divides up the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland into 152 geo­graph­ical units for veget­a­tion record­ing purposes.]

Nigel Chaffey. ORCID 0000-0002-4231-9082

Nigel is a botanist and full-time academic at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany he contributes the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ. His main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.

3 Responses

  1. Garry Rogers says:

    Nice post. Your argu­ment extends through­out the life sci­ences and is espe­cially import­ant for nature con­ser­va­tion. Someone must mon­itor spe­cies’ dis­tri­bu­tion and num­bers for pre­ser­va­tion to suc­ceed. If some plants could be drained to run cars, we would know their pre­cise locations.