23 March 2009

Life-saving science

Phil Plait, over at Bad Astronomy has a short note about a friend whose life was saved by science. (Ok, the technologies that scientific discovery enabled.)

My own story goes back quite a few years, to my childhood. I had a severe case of pneumonia. Two major contributors to the fact that I'm still around to blog at you were penicillin and the oxygen tent. Penicillin's story starts in 1928 with Alexander Fleming. He wasn't looking for it at the time. And it took another 12-15 years before years before other people, including Howard Florey and Earnest Chain (recipients, with Fleming, of the 1945 Nobel prize in Medicine for this work), were able to make enough penicillin for it to be used clinically in any significant amount.

Oxygen, on the other hand, owes its availability not to accidental discovery (plus over a decade of hard work), but to thermodynamics. James Dewar took an interest in liquifying gases, and in general, trying to reach absolute zero. Along the way, he invented the Dewar flask (which the Thermos company started selling, hence the name you probably know). I'm fairly confident he wasn't thinking about medicine. He was doing some interesting science, and learning more about how the universe worked. (Liquid oxygen is magnetic -- he was the first person to know this.) He also invented a way to produce industrial quantities of liquid oxygen. Once you've got that around, you have a chance to discover that, gee, it's a useful treatment to give high concentrations of oxygen to people whose lungs are seriously impaired -- like, say, me with my major pneumonia.

Two different technologies, one discovered by accident, and one not thought of for health. So it goes in science quite often. The ultimate uses can be unpredictable. But it's an awfully good bet that there will be a use down the road.


Anonymous said...

Nicely written. Science sure can work in mysterious ways and the outcome is often very surprising. Sometimes not the best is taken from a breakthrough and sometimes even a small discovery can save millions of lives. It's sad that sometimes science means well but the outcome is used for the wrong purposes. I read an article about a team of scientists who could construct a material that would be invisible to the human eye but one member of the team refused to continue the research because the army started to take interest in this discovery. It's sad that an amazing discovery like this one will probably never be used for the purpose it's meant for.

Take care, Lorne

Robert Grumbine said...

You can look up more on 'invisibility' materials under the term 'metamaterials'. It seems to be a pretty large field of activity even on the non-military side. The American Institute of Physics magazine, Physics Today carries an article on the topic every few months.

Steve Bloom said...

This topic recalls James Burke's clever "Connections" work of a couple of decades ago.

Anonymous said...

" James Dewar took an interest in liquifying gases"

Reminds me of the following quoted by Richard Rhodes' in his "Dark Sun" (the development of the hydrogen bomb).

Sir James Dewar is smarter than you are. None of you asses can liquify gasses!