If I’ve learned anything from my time at this university, it’s that science news is an impenetrable source of procrastination. Yes, I might well have these results to write up into a lab report, but do I want to examine this piece about a glow-in-the-dark rabbit? Who needs essay research when I can read about a space cigar (no I have not made this up, they are real, take 18 seconds to Google it)?
I will admit we seem to have come to a point where most scientific developments portrayed in the media have been reduced to the same level of regional news stories; you know the type, that end report about an obese cat learning to swim, or the largest marrow in Northern England being stolen. They become that anecdote that everyone has a laugh about during study break. Which is not a bad thing by any means, scientists aren’t exactly the best people for communicating their work to those outside the field, and it truly is a success to get the public talking about these discoveries. Scientists can no longer just hide away, we have to tell people what we are doing.
What these short pieces fail at is the impact of such research; reminding people of just how far we’ve come and why their tax money is really worth it. Sure, reporters can make some comments on how the Caveman looks, but often the value of research is shoved aside in favour of click bait. The Cheddar Man revelation is what drilled this in for me.
Before we go on, if you’re expecting a piece on a cheese-obsessed maniac or a weed-induced Creepypasta, you will probably be sorely disappointed. Let’s talk genetics kids.
Cheddar Man is the moniker given to what is thought to be the skeleton of one of Britain’s first inhabitants, discovered in 1903. It is only this year however that the researchers at the Natural History Museum and UCL have been able to sequence Cheddar Man’s entire genome, extracted from bone powder taken from his skull. While reconstruction from skeletal remains can only tell us so much about what he looked like, genome analysis was able to reveal that he most likely had dark skin, blue eyes and curly hair. While previous depictions of him portrayed him as white, we can now pinpoint his appearance with more accuracy, thanks to our knowledge on gene location on chromosomes and how they interact to produce a range of phenotypes (those are observable characteristics for all of you who missed Standard Grade biology, you’re welcome).
Figure 1: Cheddar Man, National Geographic
The thing is that while these results have been discussed in the news, along with how Cheddar’s genetics can assist in solving the journey that Homo sapiens took out of Africa into the rest of the world, there will still be people out there that think “So what?”. After all, it’s not researching into curing deadly diseases, solving antibiotic resistance or developing new technologies. It isn’t helping us now, so why should we care? Those scientists should stop faffing around with studies that no one needs; after all, it’s not serious work.
I could go into how, actually, it is frankly amazing that we have been able to reconstruct a person’s appearance from thousands of years ago. Unless time travel is invented between writing and submitting this, we have no physical method of actually viewing what our world was like millennia ago, or the creatures that inhabited it. Using our intelligence and skills to rebuild this lost reality is ever so slightly mind-blowing, and I cannot wait to hear more about the life of Ched McCheesy.
The problem: some people think science is only there to solve our troubles.
The answer: there’s no way of putting this politely, but science couldn’t give a flying fig about your troubles.
Science should not discriminate between ‘worthy’ and ‘not worthy’ research. Science is the parent who is equally proud of their sexy, life-improving popular child and the socially awkward one who researches a mosquito’s attraction to Limburger cheese and human feet (again this is real). Oddly enough, that study did lead to the use of strategically-placed cheese in parts of Africa to battle malaria spread. My point still stands; all science should be valued. If we start discriminating on who gets funding and resources, on which discipline is allowed to live or die, by simply looking at how we can use it that is one hell of a slippery slope. Because stopping someone trying to expand our knowledge of the world, even if it sounds like nonsense, is such a good idea, isn’t it?