SCIENCE NOTES 2002 ¦ University of California, Santa Cruz Science Communication Program

THE TECHNICAL CORE at my undergraduate college included courses in mathematics, physics, biology and chemistry. I learned about the laws of thermodynamics, integration and differentiation, natural selection, mechanics from Newton to Einstein, the pathway from DNA to RNA to protein, and the wonders of the periodic table. As a chemistry major I studied organic chem, physical chem, analytical chem, inorganic chem, biochem, instrumental chem, bioorganic chem, organometallic chem and nucleic acid chem. Thousands of pages of textbooks introduced me to the fundamentals of science.

To try to keep up with everything is insanity.

During this time I spent three summers working in an organic chemistry laboratory. Among the drawers of glassware and amber bottles of nasty-smelling chemicals, I immersed myself in synthesizing two short amino acid sequences. Articles relating to my research stuffed a three-inch-thick navy blue binder. The cation-pi interaction, bovine pancreatic trypsin inhibitor, unnatural amino acids, native chemical ligation, high performance liquid chromatography: I understood it all. But none of my research, even if it had been successful, would have ever appeared on one of those thousands of textbook pages. It was too specialized.

Today's scientific research examines how the basic principles apply to specific cases, searches for more examples of a phenomenon, or fills in the details of a process. These details are far from inconsequential. A discovery about one tiny gene among the tens of thousands that make up the human genome can save lives. Yet because scientists now paint with tiny, delicate strokes instead of broad splashes of color, they often find themselves backed into corners.

Educational institutions encourage and even demand specialization beginning at the undergraduate level. At some universities biochemistry departments have broken away from chemistry, astronomy from physics, molecular biology from ecology and evolution. As an undergraduate the future scientist selects a major, which may be bioinformatics, chemical physics, or statistics as easily as biology, chemistry, physics or math. Then he focuses even more sharply while completing master's and/or Ph.D. degrees. According to unwritten rules, a post-doctoral fellowship should be in a different area. This means, however, that someone who earned a Ph.D. in a DNA lab studies RNA in a post-doc. He does not tag whales.

The system prepares scientists to be specialists, not generalists, because being a generalist would drive a scientist mad. B. L. Siegel said in 1984 that scientists produce enough information every day to fill seven complete sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I'd guess they're finishing a dozen sets a day by now. The American Chemical Society (ACS) introduced seven new journals in the past five years alone. The ACS Style Guide lists abbreviations for the 1000+ journals most frequently cited by its members. They range from the widely known Science and Nature to the extremely specific Cereal Chemistry and Xenobiotica. And that's just chemistry. No one reads all these journals. A typical scientist might flip through Science or Nature each week, noting titles and reading two or three articles closely. He might subscribe to a journal or two specific to his field, and read it more closely. If the media hypes a scientific discovery such as a new cancer treatment or water on Mars, he will see it in his local newspaper or on CNN. But most scientists remain wrapped up in the specifics of their own fields and, specifically, their own laboratories. To try to keep up with everything is insanity.

The commercialization of science has also driven specialization. Molecular biologists want to patent genes, and organic chemists race to make potential drugs. Scientists performing basic research scrounge for funding as their applied counterparts form industry partnerships. Commercialization depends on a scientific creation's uniqueness. Thus, young scientists examine others' work carefully, then carve out a unique niche with their research projects. Everyone wants to break new ground, and most want to sell it afterward. A scientist may break ground in snail antennae or protactinium compounds, but he owns the turf.

Acquiring funding is a huge hassle for scientists, and specialization helps keep costs down. Newton merely needed an apple, but today's experiments require Hubble Space Telescopes and particle accelerators, which do not come cheap. The amount of equipment needed for a project has also skyrocketed. Gregor Mendel performed the experiments that established the basic rules of heredity using pea plants, pen, paper, a magnifying glass, tweezers, sunshine and water. A friend of mine used in a plant genetics experiment more than 50 chemicals, several computer software programs, a cold room, incubators, a polymerase chain reaction machine, a DNA sequencer, a centrifuge and cooperative bacteria, not to mention the plants-all this to investigate a mutation in one gene that causes abnormal root development. After a scientist purchases a DNA sequencer, economically he can't allow it to collect dust while he works on something completely different. The expensive equipment keeps scientists in the niches they carve.

Sometimes a scientist attempts to venture out of his specialization. But, fierce competition for grants means that a biology proposal from a physics professor has little chance of receiving funding. Scientists depend on grant money to perform research which leads to publications which leads to grant money — and tenure. Some established researchers do slip into a related field through collaborations with other scientists, but a physicist will never become a biologist unless he halts his career to obtain another degree.

Over the course of his career in the 1500s and 1600s, Galileo researched magnetism, heat, microscopes, mechanics, and astronomy. No one could do the same today. Too much background material to read, too much equipment to buy, too much time spent trying to convince people with money to fund the projects. That's all right. A scientist can still discover much of interest and even value in his little corner of the universe.