Talking about things

A time for discovery

Gregor Mendel’s painstaking work with pea flowers established the rules of heredity, which led on to further discoveries about genetics.

I’m slowly working my way through Alanna Mitchell’s The Spinning Magnet. It’s non-fiction, a book about the north and south magnetic poles switching and the impact that might have. The book caught my interest because we have an old story based around this idea that we’d love to revive. We shelved our original story because we thought advances in technology meant the switching wouldn’t have as much impact as we had originally believed.

We’re thinking of resurrecting the story because, according to Mitchell, something like this could still do a lot of damage to infrastructure and the environment.

Mitchell starts by giving the history of the discovery of electromagnetism.

What struck me, as I read, is how many people got parts of the theory right years before their part of the theory was accepted as fact, but were laughed at by their peers.

Alfred Wegener, for example, came up with the theory of continental drift back in 1915 and was criticised for it. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the theory became popular. (Continents drifting on a molten core is important to the concept of Earth as a massive electromagnet.)

But it’s not just electromagnetism where important findings are overlooked.

Nowadays, Gregor Mendel is known as the father of genetics, but while he was alive his paper on his garden of peas and his theories of inheritance were ignored while he was alive. Nowadays he’s known as the father of modern genetics.

You wonder how many other scientific discoveries are out there, even now, that are being derided or ignored. Or discoveries that people don’t publish because they didn’t want to be ridiculed.

Charles Darwin sat on his theory of the origin of the species by natural selection for years before publishing it. Not until a young, upstart scientist/writer by the name of Alfred Wallace sent him his (Wallace’s) own paper on his theory of natural selection which he’d developed from trips to the Amazon and the Malay Archipelago.

A year later, Darwin published his paper.

(To be fair, in between, he published a paper with Wallace, and he and Wallace apparently supported each other over the years.)

Alfred Wallace was well-known during his life, yet it’s only recently that he’s come back into favour. Most of us learned about Charles Darwin, we didn’t learn about his contemporary.

And what about poor old Mendel? I learned about Mendel and his peas in secondary school, and again at university. It’s only when we were researching genetics for Stars Uncharted that we discovered that if it hadn’t been for someone dredging up an old paper nearly fifty years after Mendel wrote his intial paper, we might never have known his about his painstaking research.

Maybe there’s something to be said, after all, for the academic ‘publish or perish’. At least academic papers are electronic nowadays. Put the right search terms in and someone up comes your work. Maybe they’ll quote it.

Or a science fiction writer might even find it and pick it up as an idea that might just work. You never know.

It wouldn’t be the first time a writer has picked up a crazy, seemingly far-out idea that was later proven to be factual.



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