The Miracle of Science?
September 1, 2011 |  by Michael Anft

Knowledge produced from research has cured diseases, fueled technological revolutions, and explained much of the explainable. But do we put too much faith in scientific progress?

During the Roaring ’20s, car sales boomed and fortunes grew, and yet Henry Ford was hardly happy. The tire rubber he needed to keep his assembly lines rolling came exclusively from foreign sources and cost a ransom. So in 1927, Ford called on a friend, celebrity inventor and scientist Thomas Alva Edison, to discover a domestic source of natural rubber. Ford and tire magnate Harvey Firestone set Edison up in Florida, where he explored 17,000 plants, looking for one that could be used to make rubber.

A year later, Ford shipped a notable delegation of his Michigan brain trust and several million dollars on boats through the Amazon jungle, opening up what he hoped would be the Western Hemisphere’s answer to the British monopoly on bulk rubber in the East. Ford reasoned that by tearing down the jungle and replanting it with hardy rubber trees, the availability of rubber would skyrocket. He called the venture “Fordlandia.”

By 1936, Ford got more than a hint that his faith in science would not be rewarded. Although Edison found that goldenrod had some potential as a rubber source, Ford and Firestone, disappointed in the Wizard of Menlo Park’s results, backed out of the lab.  A decade or so later, Fordlandia shut down after Ford’s botanists learned too late that South American rubber trees remained healthy only if scattered throughout copses of other native trees.

The lesson? Even piles of money, the drive of one of the 20th century’s “great men,” and the best scientific minds couldn’t produce progress on demand. And yet in our age, when scientific discovery is often conflated with economic development and the march of technology, that lesson is often forgotten.

“The wheel was invented in ancient Babylon, an axle was added a while later, and up till the steam engine, we really didn’t add anything new,” says Maria Portuondo, assistant professor of the history of science and technology at the Krieger School. “Science and technology sometimes seem to produce these explosions, these bolts out of the blue, followed by quiet periods. Then they might begin to make more astounding discoveries.”

Those “bolts” are often produced not by lone geniuses, Portuondo adds, but by thinkers who, as Isaac Newton put it, stand on the shoulders of giants. And it takes time. A century after Copernicus published his argument for a heliocentric solar system, Newton developed the math that fully explained it. “The modern notion of progress doesn’t understand the pace of science,” Portuondo says.

President Richard Nixon promised a cure for cancer in five to 10 years—40 years ago. More recently, when scientists pushed for billions of dollars in federal government support to complete the mapping of the entire human genome, they pledged that genomic discoveries would create a new generation of disease-fighting drugs. Yet, eight years after the entire human genome was sequenced, drug companies and disease sufferers are still waiting for the payoff. “In general, scientists need to stop making unrealistic promises,” Portuondo says. “We used to see that with the space program, which was sold as a program of scientific discovery but was, in fact, a Cold War technology program with science as a secondary, though important, component.”

Researchers who investigate disease say it’s too much to expect them to instantly unravel the molecular biochemistry and genetics of illnesses, in the wake of genome mapping. “The Human Genome Project remains a beacon of faith for many researchers,” says Andrew Feinberg, professor of molecular medicine at the School of Medicine. He says that science has and will continue to rise to certain needs. “Look at HIV. Twenty years ago, it was a death sentence. Now, it’s a live-with-the-disease sentence” because of a concerted effort to identify it and isolate drugs that could slow down the virus that causes AIDS. “The public has gotten an incredible payout for the money it’s spent. Overwhelmingly, what we’ve learned from the Human Genome Project is a huge positive for public health and for new knowledge. Everyone will benefit from it.”

Eventually, science finds ways to get where it wants to go. Soon after Henry Ford’s failures 75 years ago, the world would be overrun with rubber. During World War II, American scientists created large amounts of synthetic rubber. Even though development of “new” rubber was aided by need—the bulk of the world’s rubber trees were in enemy territory at the time—the incident at least hints that scientific discovery moves at a productive, if unpredictable, pace.