Out of Order: Inspired cynic
For a few days, at least, this grumpy old tech has regained a degree of excitement about what is out there and what is possible. It’s a good feeling, and one that I wish for everyone out there.
I am a cynical old man, but I came by it honestly. Perhapsit started with the decade of academic research, where failure was not just anoption, but also a constant reality that was only punctuated by moments ofclarity. Perhaps it came from all my years as a science writer, working inpublishing or advertising. Heck, I started my writing career with a columncalled "The Grumpy Old Tech," and I was only in my 30s.
As with all but our youngest readers, I have watchedtechnologies and insights cycle several times over the span of a coupledecades. Success in a test tube is immediately hailed as a paradigm-shiftingbreakthrough that will lead to cures for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, goutand hiccups. When the genome hits $1,000 we shall join hands and enter Elysium(not the movie).
Oh, yes—I am also jaded and very sarcastic. What makes itworse, I think, is that I don't want to be cynical. I actually want to believe.I want to see miracles at the human level.
Earlier this week, I had a momentary respite from mycynicism as I watched my evening news, which ran a story of a remarkable youngman, Adam Noble of Peterborough, Ontario. In his mid-teens, while studying thewater ecology of a local river, Adam noted an influx of silver nanoparticlesthat seemed to be emanating from a nearby water treatment plant. Not content tosimply develop a new test to quantify the nanoparticles, he also developed analgae-based test to determine the toxicity of the nanoparticles. Hisobservations of the aggregation of the nanoparticles within the algal cellsthen led him to develop a way to retrieve the silver before it entered thewatershed and provided a financial boon to local economies.
So what does this have to do with DDNews? Adam then delved further into the biological impact of thenanosilver in fish and realized that it had a teratogenic effect on cells. Hereasoned that if he could better target the particles, it might be possible toreverse that effect and actually kill tumor cells. In vitro, he was able to do just that with a variety of cancertissues—to the point where he is now, at the ripe old age of 19, working withresearchers at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children and Princess MargaretHospital, as well as the University of Calgary, to develop a treatment for neuroblastoma.
But didn't I just complain about success in a test tube?What excites me is not his discovery—although I wish him well—but rather, howhe got here. Adam took his interest in water ecology and made a scientific leapthat damned few others would have made. Put succinctly, his imagination worksin ways that few others can master, and we have to tap into that.
There is likely a whole world of Adams out there, and wehave to do everything we can to first recognize them and then support them inany way we can. They are unlikely to come from traditional directions, becausetheir ideas are not traditional, the connections they make are not traditional.And this will make them harder to identify, despite many of them no doubtstanding on chairs and yelling to all the world, "Look at this! Isn't it cool?"
People like Adam—whether 19, 49 or 79 years old—give me hopethat we are not doomed to the same old, same old. That serendipity andold-fashioned daydreaming still have a role in helping us understand outuniverse. That we have not lost our wonder for pure, unadulterated discoveryfor the sake of discovery.
For a few days, at least, this grumpy old tech has regaineda degree of excitement about what is out there and what is possible. It's agood feeling, and one that I wish for everyone out there.
Willis is the featureseditor of DDNews. He has worked at both ends of the pharmaceutical industry,from basic research to marketing, and has written about biomedical science foralmost two decades.