“I could see the question coming but had no idea how you were going to answer it.”
Several of my students and professional colleagues sent me emails to that effect following a live interview I had done on one of the BBC Radio 4 news programmes. For the reader to understand the problem I need to give a bit of background.
Along with Graeme Ruxton (St Andrews University) and Euan Nisbet (Royal Holloway, University of London) I had published a short paper in a high profile biology journal which described the results of our attempts to calculate the amount of methane potentially produced by the microorganisms (technically known as ‘methanogens’) which are likely to have lived in the guts of large herbivorous dinosaurs such as the long-necked sauropods.
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and our maths suggested – at least in principle – that ‘dinosaur’ methane could have been produced in a quantity large enough to have had a measurable effect on the climate of that time.
Clearly farting dinosaurs causing climate change (although we never actually specified which end of the animals vented the gas!) is something of a gift to science journalists, and our research received a large amount of press coverage – including the Radio 4 interview.
So what was the obvious question that many listeners could see coming? After explaining how we had gone about making a quantitative estimate of methane production from dinosaur gut microbes and what our work did – and did not – establish about atmospheric chemistry and climate at the time, the final question was ‘Why is this important?’ So why does it matter? There is a common view that science should have useful impacts – such as solving some problem, like curing a disease, or creating a technology that allows someone to make money and someone else to collect some of it as taxes. It is hard to see how understanding the potential impacts of dinosaurs on the climate of their times is in any way useful in this sense.
At best one could claim that any increased understanding of the Earth’s climate system is a good thing given the current concerns about climate change – but arguing for any great relevance for our work to current climate change is something of a stretch! My answer was rather different and I will devote the rest of this essay to developing it in more detail.
Clearly science-based technologies have revolutionised much of life – at least in the developed world – and this is obviously one of the things that science ‘is for.’ Medicine is a good example of this, anyone who has had major abdominal surgery (as I did as a child) or had a serious bacterial infection (as I did as an adult) would have had a high chance of dying before the development of antibiotics, around the time of the Second World War.
The idea that we can learn useful things from nature long predates modern science – for example well over 2,000 years ago The Book of Job suggested you can ‘ask the animals and they will teach you, or the birds, and they will tell you; or speak to the Earth and it will teach you’. However for me, and most of the other scientists I collaborate with, there is much more to science than practical utility.
The main reason our methane research attracted so much media interest was that it focused on dinosaurs. There is limited utility in understanding dinosaur biology but it is clearly a topic of wide general interest, which is why we got so much press interest in our work.
The same is true of many of the other areas of science that feature prominently in newspapers, websites, radio, TV and popular science books. Medicine features prominently for practical reasons but it’s hard to claim much utility for most of archaeology, astronomy or even large parts of particle physics, yet they are all media favourites because they interest so many people.
One could make a rather trivial argument for the financial utility of these areas of knowledge by claiming that, because of the wide public interest, they give employment to journalists and TV documentary makers but that would be missing the point.
The fact that the largest known dinosaur weighed an estimated 50,000kg or more (a really large African elephant manages only about 10,000kg), or that black holes exist in space, are intrinsically interesting additions to knowledge and add to our wonder at the universe
irrespective of any practical utility. Just as many would argue that the pictures in Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery – which is only a short walk from my office – have a value beyond what they would fetch if auctioned at Sotheby’s or Bonham’s, so science has more than a financial value to society.
Indeed science is just as much a part of human culture as the arts or humanities; we are used to thinking that the value of art goes beyond its mere practical utility or financial value and the same is true for science.
I will illustrate this idea with another example. Consider mitochondria, these are tiny structures in the cells of animals, plants, fungi and protozoa (but not bacteria) that are often referred to as the ‘powerhouses’ of the cell as they are crucial in supplying it with energy.
As such, they are important for the functioning of animals such as ourselves and there are various metabolic diseases that involve the malfunctioning of mitochondria – so there is a clear utility in studying them.
However to me the most remarkable thing about them is their evolutionary origin. For almost as long as we have known about both bacteria and mitochondria some scientists have pointed out that mitochondria looked remarkably ‘bacteria like’. However it was not until the 1960s that Lynn Margulis managed to eventually convince most biologists that mitochondria had evolved from bacteria that had somehow got inside early cells. This idea is extraordinary – that you and I are alive because long ago in the geological past bacteria
became incorporated into the cells of our ancestors (which at the time were single-celled organisms) and that the remnants of the once free-living bacteria are now inside our cells and crucial to our survival.
It’s an idea that makes the world a more extraordinary and interesting place and it’s this – rather than any particular utility – that makes it important.
There is also a link here to our dinosaur methane paper as Margulis was a great champion of the importance of microorganisms in biology. She died late in 2011 and, as both Euan Nisbet and I knew her, we dedicated our dinosaur methane paper to her memory writing that ‘We thank the late Lynn Margulis for infecting us with her microbial enthusiasm – she would have savoured the notion of sauropods as walking methanogen vats’.
The importance of microbes – long championed by Margulis – has been a recurring theme in my own research. Many scientists have studied their role in disease, which has clear practical utility and as I have already suggested is the reason that I, and perhaps you, are
still alive. It is science-based technology that allows so many of us to now exceed the biblical use-by-date of three score years and ten.
Some of my own microbial research has been on the role that protozoa play in the ecology of soil – something of potential relevance to many applied questions. However this utility is not why I study them. The reasons I study microbes (and other areas of biology too) are
diverse and hardly any of them have a link to direct utility. Viewed down a microscope many of the microbes I study are just as beautiful as the larger organisms that dominate TV nature programmes so there is a strong aesthetic aspect. In addition it’s their role in the large questions of ecology that fascinates me as I want to understand how something as complex as our planet works – rather than just tweaking some limited aspect of the Earth system to better suit human needs.
As with any scientist there is also a long series of historical accidents that have determined what interests me – such as books read or influential teachers in the past, or more recently colleagues who have lead to me studying ‘this’ rather than ‘that’ – as many writers and historians have pointed out the cultural context in which a scientist works can be very important.
Not only does cultural context affect science but scientific knowledge and understanding has great life enriching cultural relevance to everyone, way beyond its sometimes practical utility.
Dr David M. Wilkinson is a Reader in Environmental Science at Liverpool John Moores University’s School of Natural Sciences and Psychology. He has wide interests in biology, environmental science and the history of science.
His theoretical work has concentrated on areas of evolutionary ecology, biogeography (especially microbial biogeography) and the Earth System (Gaia). He has written two books; Fundamental Processes in Ecology; An Earth Systems Approach (2006), which won the British Ecological Societies book prize in 2007, and Big Questions in Ecology and Evolution (2009, coauthored with Tom Sherratt of Carleton University Canada) - both books are published by Oxford University Press.