The inevitability of discovery

This past weekend I took two hours off from writing and lab work, drove myself to the movie theater, and saw the breathtaking wonder that is Jurassic Park in 3D. JP holds a special place in my heart because, as a little girl, it enchanted me in much the same way as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The power of what humanity can do and not do inspired me, even at 4 years old. In fact, I credit this movie as my very first exposure to science. You might laugh at this thought, looking now at the “science” presented in the movie, but such is the naivete of youth.

Like all classic films, there are themes in JP that transcend both the early 1990’s and the idea that we can isolate dinosaur DNA from fossilized mosquitoes, do some quick pipetting and virtual simulation, and wam-bam-boom have a baby dinosaur.  BIG questions are posed in this film. What are the limits of scientific discovery? Can we control the natural world? How responsible are scientists?  And of course there is also the famous line, “God created dinosaurs. God destroyed dinosaurs. God created man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs….Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the earth;” quite the commentary on human progress……I doubt Spielberg meant this movie to be a specific commentary on the scientific community.  But the scientific community is nothing more than a microcosm of society, and these are certainly ethical questions scientists, including young investigators, are met with everyday. Sitting in the theater as a second year graduate student beginning to start drafting qualifying exam materials, there were some lines that particularly struck me:

“Life finds a way.”

“God help us, we’re in the hands of engineers.”

“What’s so great about discovery? It’s a violent, penetrative act that scars what it explores. What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.”

“…but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Can we? Should we? Why? Big questions addressed in most grants and papers. But I think it is important to point out here, once and for all, that not all discovery is destructive, not all scientific endeavor bad. Responsibility and ethics are essential to science, of course, but scientists are some of the most serious people I know. They must be, because their reputations and the future of their disciplines demand it. Unfortunately, this film chooses to focus on the negative consequences of discovery rather than the positive, casting a disparaging light on the scientific community.

But of course, this film is fantasy and should be taken as such. Watching the creations overtake the creators, there is an intrinsic sense of inevitable powerlessness I sometimes feel about science. I have never doubted the necessity of scientific discovery to human progress. I have become increasingly convinced, however, that like the scientists in JP, we cannot know everything about anything. There is a dark line on the horizon I do not think is penetrable. But then again, I could be wrong. Hence the beauty of science.