March 30, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Science Discovers the Unexpected and the Obvious

Young’s Law jokes, “All great discoveries are made by mistake.”  Here are some recent examples.

  1. Arch-istan:  Think the world’s natural features are all well known?  “Researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society have stumbled upon a geological colossus in a remote corner of Afghanistan: a natural stone arch spanning more than 200 feet across its base,” reported PhysOrg.  It now ranks as the 12th largest natural bridge in the world.
        “It’s one of the most spectacular discoveries ever made in this region,” a spokesman for the Society said.  And there’s probably more: “The arch is emblematic of the natural marvels that still await discovery in Afghanistan” if only the warlords would let people in.
  2. Sing for surgery:  A lady needed knee replacement surgery, but her blood pressure was too high.  Science Daily reported, “While the patient was unresponsive to aggressive pharmacologic interventions, the woman’s blood pressure dropped dramatically when she sang several religious songs.”  Maybe they’ve stumbled upon a new therapy: “Singing is simple, safe, and free.  Patients should be encouraged to sing if they wish.”
        The story did not explain whether it was the singing that was effective, or the words.  Depending on the songs (which were not mentioned), it could have been the concepts expressed by the songs that gave this particular patient comfort.  The article said that “larger studies are needed” to see if singing will be advised for patients.  If so, it could make for a strange new auditory environment in hospitals depending on the singers’ skill (and harmonization).  Arguably, though, there are songs that might raise blood pressure.
  3. Nice termites:  Termites are a farmer’s friend, claimed New Scientist.  An ecosystem scientist in Australia “has shown that the insects can increase the yield of wheat crops by 36 per cent.”  Ants and termites can loosen the soil in arid climates like earthworms do in more temperate climates.  They also bring more nitrogen into the soil.
        “Never mind fertilisers and pesticides: for a natural solution to boosting crop yields in arid regions, turn to termite power,” said Wendy Zukerman at New Scientist; however, she quoted critics who pointed to some potential downsides. 
  4. Mammoth protein:  Protein samples have been extracted from a mammoth said to be 600,000 years old.  Science Daily quoted a “bio-archaeologist” from the University of York who remarked, “Until several years ago we did not believe we would find any collagen in a skeleton of this age, even if it was as well-preserved as the West Runton Elephant.”
        The specimen, 85% intact, is the most complete and well-preserved mammoth found so far.  See artist rendition of the West Runton Elephant on PhysOrg.
  5. Non-renewable energy:  Wind and wave power seem to be models of clean, green, renewable sources of energy.  Not so, says Axel Kleidon of the Max Planck Institute.  New Scientist claims, as summarized by reporter Mark Buchanan, “Build enough wind farms to replace fossil fuels and we could do as much damage to the climate as greenhouse global warming.
        Kleidon’s argument, being taken seriously in the UK, is that the second law of thermodynamics dictates that devices built to take advantage of winds and waves are doomed to emit much of the energy gained as heat – back into the atmosphere.

On the other hand, scientists occasionally state the obvious:

  • Hearing media reports about uncommon acts of goodness can make good people even better (PhysOrg).
  • Lack of motivation is a barrier for exercise in boys (PhysOrg).
  • Researchers given intellectual challenge and independence are more likely to come up with innovations (PhysOrg).
  • Beautiful people are happier (PhysOrg), but there was a lot of spread in the data (to say nothing of subjectivity).
  • Distressed areas have more poverty (PhysOrg).

Lastly, PhysOrg made the astonishing discovery that “conscientious people earn more and save more for retirement.”

Must be publish-or-perish time at some universities.  Scientific discovery needs to be distinguished from scientific explanation.  Sometimes scientists stumble upon new ideas, sometimes they reinforce the obvious, and sometimes they upset apple carts (05/19/2010) – only to have other scientists turn them right-side up again.  Occasionally, scientists discover new, useful principles by careful, methodical research.  Whether accidental or methodical, their findings must always be filtered through human limitations.  That’s why discernment is required for anyone evaluating their claims.


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