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Scientific Discoveries: Swimming with and Against the Tide

Adams, Anthony J.

Optometry and Vision Science: February 2012 - Volume 89 - Issue 2 - p 121
doi: 10.1097/OPX.0b013e31824907d4
Editorial
Free
SDC

Editor-in-Chief, Berkeley, California

Although basic scientists correctly point to the importance of unexpected discoveries and the pursuit of curiosity in that endeavor, this holiday season I was again reminded of the way scientific discovery can fail or slow down if it doesn't nurture the novel approaches and adheres only to a “what's hot” in its field.

Over the holiday I reread a fascinating book “Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time,” by Dava Sobel.1 It brought home some aspects of science that are sometimes true today.

The book's publisher notes that early in the 18th century, “During the great ages of exploration, ‘the longitude problem’ was the gravest of scientific challenges. Lacking the ability to determine their longitude, sailors were literally lost at sea as soon as they lost sight of land.” Although the author takes us through what William F. Buckley described as “An exquisitely done narrative of the chronometer,” I found myself also fascinated by the way the arguably most prestigious scientific body of the time failed to appreciate, or accept, a solution by any means other than through an astronomy application.

Author Sobel points out that for more than four centuries after latitude was easily determined, the problem of precisely identifying the longitude eluded famous scientists in many countries despite substantial prizes being offered by governments, and the construction of elaborate observatories built in England, France, and Germany specifically targeting an astronomical solution by viewing “the heavens.” The prevailing view for those four centuries was that the solution to identifying longitude must necessarily come from the application of astronomy.

But the ultimate solution, in the mid to late 18th century, came from the development of a maritime clock that enabled true time, uncontaminated by temperature shifts, ocean tossing, or the need for lubrication or cleaning. This true time was needed to exactly locate longitude. However, on the way to this clock solution, the genius clockmaker, John Harrison, was not only denied the prize (several million dollars in today's currency) but earned the wrath and disapproval of scientists for a very long time. Why?

The members of the commissioners charged with awarding the prize, including Neville Maskelyne, the fifth astronomer royal, were unwilling to cede that the problem could really be solved by other than celestial means. In fact it took almost 40 struggling and sometimes nasty years, ultimately with the support of King George III, for John Harrison to win the prize in 1773. This was almost 60 years after the famed Longitude Act of 1714 by the British Parliament set up the prize in response to a tragic longitude error- induced accident resulting in a loss of four ships and nearly 2,000 men at the Scilly Isles near the southwest tip of England.

The book is a great read describing the fascinating development of clocks by a determined and probably “difficult ” genius who persisted in his quest, defying conventional scientific wisdom of the day on how the challenge of precisely locating longitude should be solved. Staggeringly, to me, was the obvious fact that a celestial longitude solution could always be impeded by cloudy nights!

There can be no doubt that science tends to follow established paths and in today's environment it often follows technological developments that help determine the path of inquiry. Some might uncharitably say science is “voguish” and follows popular “politically correct” paths. But such paths have resulted in exponentially growing discoveries that have helped remake our everyday lives and advance medical and health sciences—as has the discovery by colleagues who approached their science and curiosity from new avenues and untrodden paths.

In our own field we have seen major changes and discoveries based on both technological advances and on curiosity and insight. The way we think about near work, outdoor activity, visual experience, and even the relative contributions of peripheral and foveal defocus on myopia development and progression is different than just a couple of decades ago. And how would the OD graduates of the 1980s or before have anticipated that they could visualize the individual photoreceptors and blood flow in capillaries in the retina of the living eye. And prior to 1990, we could not easily imagine that the tiny local electroretinograms of local patches of retina could be recorded separately and form the basis of an entirely objective functional visual field assessment. My own training on the histology of the retina is now replaced by in vivo images, even in 3D, of all the layers of the retina. The thickness profile of the retina in diseased states and the flow rate of blood corpuscles in retinal vessels are now accessible. These are just a few examples; some of them as a result of what Jake Sivak describes in his Academy Prentice Medal Lecture, published in Optometry and Vision Science,2 as “serendipitous discoveries.”

So science, including in our own field, moves forward along a variety of paths and fortunately there are those who have that special ability to translate these discoveries into wonderful advances in patient eye and vision care. The American Academy of Optometry annual program is billed as “Today's Research: Tomorrow's Practice.” It is an exciting time to be a researcher, a clinician, or both!

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REFERENCES

1. Sobel D. Longitude: the true story of a lone genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time. New York: Walker Publishing Company; 1995.
2. Sivak JG. The Charles F. Prentice Award Lecture 2009: crystalline lens research and serendipity in science. Optom Vis Sci 2010;87:622–630.
© 2012 American Academy of Optometry