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Letters from Downunder

The Thrill of Discovery

Submitted by Lindsay Coker, Melbourne Australia

(June, 2010) Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought. Albert von Szent-Gyorgyi

There is nothing quite like the thrill of discovery.

Whether it’s a baby discovering their toes for the first time, or a fossicker finding a buried treasure, the thrill is there. Even when everyone else knows about it, it makes no difference to the new discoverer – there is always that little frisson of excitement. The other day I watched my five-month-old granddaughter try and eventually succeed in getting her dummy into her mouth. Her grin of achievement was beautiful to behold. I remember hearing the first crackle of sound from a crystal radio I had made when I was ten. Open mouthed wonder, and questions as to what made it work. No one knew, then, but of course the almost magical properties of quartz crystals are considered commonplace today.

Childhood discoveries are wondrous, but how quickly most of of us forget them and the excitement they bring. For many, of course, discovery becomes a matter of survival – finding food, clean water and somewhere to sleep is the whole of life – but most of us do have time to wonder about what we see and hear, the why, the wherefore, the how. Some of us become driven, put their whole life and future into finding out - and I do not mean the discovery of how to make money. That’s not a discovery, but a belief we’re imbued with from the cradle.

This need to find out has been with mankind since our forebrain grew to become the powerhouse. It has led the race outwards, inwards, forwards and at times backwards. We would not be human without it, but when the quest is made to seem too hard, pointless, or foolish our humanity is also likely to be diminished. This is no mere quibble; finding things out can so easily be diverted into easier types of education. ‘Science stinks’ is not a new idea. Remember Julius Sumner Miller? ‘Why is it so?’ was his cry. Not Science Stinks, but Scientists Think - and as Rene Descartes famously said, ‘I think, therefore I am. ‘

So discovery means thinking; it also means you do not have to have anything but one or two of your senses working to begin. You do NOT have to have much money, though some helps. A recent British report showed that a good magnifying glass, a few small white dishes, a good light and a pair of tweezers were all that was needed to examine a spoonful of soil from the garden. There was a reasonable chance you would find something there that you did not know about, and some chance it would be something that no one knew about. I was also impressed to read in this journal a couple of months ago about the science awards given to school children in the area, and the wonderful and inventive things that had been achieved. The same kinds of thing happen across the world, making the discoverer rich in mind and spirit.

Research and discovery is not all about the sciences, of course. Every area of Endeavour has its cache of treasures, and most do not require the vast sums of money that advanced science does today. It is one thing to examine a spoonful of dirt, an entirely different thing to examine its molecular structure. It is one thing to listen to a crystal radio, another to discover why quartz behaves like it does. Advanced research takes advanced funding, but here enters two different ideas about this: Much of the money spent on this type of sophisticated research is done with the aim of recouping the outlay by a factor of ten plus. It is profit driven, and while it does produce results, it does not advance the understanding of fundamentals to any great degree. That is the realm of basic research, which is properly the role taken by universities and government funded bodies. Much of industry used to be in the forefront of of such work, but rarely is nowadays. Basic research on fuel cell technology, alternative energy sources and so on are part of the industrial work being done today, but only because it is seen as making money and enhancing reputations. It’s called applied research, an area in which I began many years ago, and found rewarding, but not to be compared to the joy and stimulation of pure research.

But whatever the area, whatever the result, it all starts with an enquiring mind, continues with a brain that is stimulated into pursuing the thrill and joy of discovery, and evolves into someone being able to add to the sum of things previously unknown or even unsuspected. Probably a very small addition – few are Newtons, Burnetts or Einsteins - but ultimately it is not the quantity, the breakthrough, or the value of the advance that matters. It is the journey, the quest. There is a goal, there are many diversions and dangers on the way, and it is the role of parents to provide the first simple steps, and teacher to foster the stimulation.

So I would like to pay tribute to all the dedicated teachers of discovery, science in particular, and their role in providing the incentives to think, learn and uncover.

Read Past Down Under Columns by Lindsay Coker