..... Stumper Index
Stumper #31.






How Good Is Your Science KQ?

[i.e. your Knowledge Quotient]

Science by Design or Chance?

In the field of observation,
chance favors only the prepared mind."
--Louis Pasteur, 1822-1895

Who 'does' science?
"Astronomers" were mentioned in written English before 1400, "mathematicians" a few decades later. The chemist as a "distiller of waters" began to be set apart from the "alchemist" in the 1500s. The terms "botanist" and "zoologist" were devised in the 1600s and the term "geologist" appeared in the 1700s. William Whewell, a Cambridge historian and philosopher who thought a general name for a science practitioner was needed, coined the term "scientist" in 1840.

So, what is a scientist?
He or she is one who delves systematically into the intricate tapestry of our world and beyond. Some scientists try to figure out how things work; others try to find new or better ways of doing things. A theoretical scientist devotes her/his time to the fundamentals or principles of a subject to reveal new principles or modification of old ones. A modeler is a scientist who uses fundamentals or principles of his/her science to develop mathematical data in order to make predictions which are usefully accurate when compared to what actually happens in the lab or in nature. An observational scientist gathers data from nature and makes deductions based on that and other data. A modern experimental scientist works in a laboratory and experiments using instruments and other specialized equipment to create new understandings and information. A significant characteristic separating the laboratory from the observational scientist is that the former typically formulates an hypothesis, sets up experimental systems to test it and must then perturb these systems in order to confirm or negate that hypothesis.

Science discoveries; do they happen by design or chance?
The general idea in a research science lab is that experiments should be carefully designed and controlled. The researcher is expected to have a well-developed idea of what he/she is trying to find out or prove. Perhaps because research scientists tend to have specific goals, they sometimes make important observations peripheral to their specific study - but don't know that they have made them, or have all the information needed for an important discovery - but do not make it. However, discoveries do sometimes come about as a result of the follow-up of chance observations.

Chardonnet, a young French chemist working on photographic plates in his dark room one day in 1878, chanced to spill some liquid on the darkroom bench. When he tried wiping up the spill some time later he noticed a very curious phenomenon. Intrigued with the possibilities of his observation, Chardonnet worked for the next six years with mulberry leaf pulp dissolved in ether and alcohol to produce a revolutionary new product.

1. The substance Chardonnet spilled in 1878 was collodion. What was the product he perfected six years later?

2. What polyamide, shelved by organic chemist Wallace Carothers early in the 1930s as being of no particular interest, was later playfully stretched along the lab corridor by some chemists in his lab and only then recognized as having special, unique, useful properties?

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