Will there be an “end” to discovery? Are humans reaching a point in their existence where they know almost too much? I’d venture to say “yes” on the grounds that human perceptions on what is morally right (which we collectively refer to as ethics) continue to stand in the way of ingenuity. I’d venture to say “no” based on the insatiable curiosity inherent to the human race.
As time passes, it seems that more and more obstacles are stacked in the face of innovation. For example, embryonic stem cells became a hot topic for more than just the scientific breakthrough. Ethical disputes over killing a potential life quickly stifled what could have been a paradigm shift in medical treatment. Over the last year, scientists have modified differentiated cells (ie, fibroblasts) into their pluripotent state, thereby regenerating interest in stem cell therapy. I believe that the latter method of inducing differentiated cells to regain their pluripotency will be awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine at some point in my life for its simplicity yet overwhelming importance. After all, I think we can all agree that simple fibroblast cells are expendable if they can be used to regrow damaged hepatic, cardiac, and even nervous tissues to save a patient’s life. 😉
But anyways, back to my point. With all these hardships which we will continue to face, I’m getting uneasy about what kind of future we’ll have. Think about living in the early 20th century where discovery ran rampant. Einstein blowing away Newtonian schools of thought with his theories on the behavior of light and nature of gravity. New subatomic particles being discovered to revolutionize particle physics. Dirac’s emphasis on the beauty of simplistic equations explaining natural phenomena. I don’t really remember anything that dramatic unfolding in my life time. All I remember is politics-this and economy-that with random acts of violence filling in the gaps. Ugh, and the future doesn’t look any brighter. It seems like there are only a finite number of things to “discover”, and we’re approaching that limit way too quickly. If I’m wrong, and there really are countless discoveries awaiting us, then ethical issues will make it increasingly difficult to attain true progress. We already have the power to kill ourselves a hundred times over. We already have the power to play God. All it takes is one person to exploit either one of the aforementioned cases. How are ethics going to control that?
Maybe I’m just a little bitter. Sure, the winners of the Nobel Prize have distinguished themselves from the rest of their peers for many reasons, but I think some of the research is a bit too simple. For example, this year’s Chemistry prize went to the discoverers of the green flourescent protein (GFP) from a certain species of jellyfish. How simple is that! For discovering a protein that they could use in visualizing the inner workings of cells, the researchers got a Nobel Prize. It’s not like they created the protein on their own. They just took something in nature and applied it to something new. Heck, I would venture to say that some of my colleagues and I could have discovered GFP had we lived at that time and had the drive. Of course, I’m not discounting the magnitude of their discovery. All I’m alluding to is the fact that “simple” discoveries are becoming scarce, and true innovation faces a great deal of ethical confrontation in the future.