Sobering thoughts at seventy on trivia and serendipity



The Editor-in-Chief reflects on a life in biological sciences that has been rewarding through the sheer diversity of interesting phenomenon he has researched, and recalls how holistic thinking had sadly been replaced by rampant reductionism.

Time stands still for no man, especially a busy one; but it's not every day you get a 70th birthday. In keeping with old practices, I thought it would be timely to invite some of my friends and colleagues, including those on the editorial board of Cell Biology International, to contribute articles. The response has been very pleasing, with about 15 articles in the pipeline which will both appear in the print issues and be collected together online as a birthday ‘issue’. More can be added until the end of the year, so those who are still in the process of sending (and those who can still manage to write one), do please add to the collection. The papers are truly an eclectic mixture, including articles on autophagy, endothelial cells, the microtrabecular lattice and the porosome. In a sense, this reflects my own interests: a fascination with the many different aspects of biological sciences.

I was brought up at a time when a lot of the biological literature could be perused by the inquisitive-minded young scientist. Certainly one could keep tabs on most of the advances in cell biology. One absorbed information on a wide range of different aspects with more than just a cursory scan. Not only could many different aspects of biology be explored and embraced, but also you had the opportunity of putting things together in the broader picture of the discipline and science in general. In brief, it engendered in some of us the ability to synthesize rather than to indulge, as today, in rampant reductionism where we know more and more about less and less. What a change has occurred in one short lifetime!

To indulge also in a bit of philosophizing, let us remember that all science is about correlations, from which we hope to distinguish cause from effect along the axis of time. The difficulty is in distinguishing between direct correlations that are important, other direct correlations, indirect correlations and spurious correlations. A gigantic amount of current-day publications include huge numbers of correlations, but too few take the trouble to sort out what kind of correlations they are on the above basis. So we live with mountains of information that do not make much sense to anyone, except perhaps the assiduous ‘data-miner’. However, correlations in biology, perhaps far more than in the physical sciences, are so much more fickle. We forget the fickleness of life, the constant shifts that allow adaptation to circumstances which improve the chances of survival. The correlation that was highly relevant one moment may be completely irrelevant the next due to what might have been a trivial – even unnoticeable – change in the environment. We find papers reporting that a change in the medium induces differentiation in some cultured cell line or other, and that 870 genes are upregulated >2-fold and another 364 are similarly downregulated. The crucial question is which of these 1234 changes is truly important. Alternatively, knowing the complexity of the metabolome, maybe we have to accept that they are all important in their own way. If all things are correlated in life (as they must be in a cell, an organism, an ecosystem), nothing turns out to be trivial in the end. It is little wonder that some of the greatest thinkers in science (Einstein included) shied away from biology! One must now have faith in ‘systems biology’ getting to grips with this fundamental principle of the total interactiveness of everything that goes on in life. Unlike Hawking and others, I am not of the persuasion, however, that there is a unifying theory of everything. Perhaps these experts ought to have spent some time investigating biology.

Enjoy these papers; read each other's work. Try to incorporate some of the ideas expressed by colleagues reporting different phenomena into your own field of interest. One thing that has been sadly declining in our modern-day reductionist approach and the ability of sophisticated search engines to do the job of scanning highly specialized literature is that we less often read an unrelated article that we just happened to notice in passing. Serendipity, a truly marvellous eye-opener sometimes in biology, is rapidly going out the window, but perhaps someone someday will tinker with our knowledge retrieval systems, rediscover the value of serendipity and build in a factor that restores some element of it.

I can only reflect on how serendipity has affected me in two ways. The first is that a surprising amount of my research output has been the result of some serendipitous finding rather than coming from following a strict research plan, like the proposals written out for a grant-giving body that in truth suppress rather than encourage new discoveries. And, secondly, serendipity has often (always?) resulted in a certain joie de vivre, an excitement that brings a whole new spirit into the too often dull daily grind of progressing some experimental programme that just does not seem to be going anywhere. If scientific research is not fun, why do we do it? I have enjoyed it and will continue to do so. It is good to reflect not on how much we now know, but on how little we know. Life has many more surprises in store for those of us, especially those who spend most of their time investigating it.