When Gregor Mendel began his investigations of plant genetics in the 1800s, he worked alone — a middle-aged European monk counting peas in the abbey garden. One hundred and fifty years later, modern plant genetics laboratories, like Chelsea Specht’s below, look a lot more diverse and employ the latest DNA sequencing techniques. When J.J. Thomson discovered a new particle of matter — the electron — at the turn of the century, his lab equipment mainly consisted of vacuum tubes, magnets, and some simple wiring. One hundred years later, scientists searching for new particles like the Higgs boson use a supercollider — a 17-mile-long machine that costs several billion dollars and will produce data to be analyzed by the most powerful supercomputer in the world. Science has come a long way in the last 150 years! We now have more powerful data analysis techniques, more sophisticated equipment for making observations and running experiments, and a much greater breadth and depth of scientific knowledge. And as the attitudes of the broader society have progressed, science has benefited from the expanding diversity of perspectives offered by its participants. But what about the process of science itself? Has this fundamental aspect of the scientific enterprise changed over time?
Science will always look for explanations for what goes on in the natural world and test those explanations against evidence from the natural world — but exactly how this gets done may evolve. The scientific enterprise is not static. Science is deeply interwoven with society, and as it has changed, so too has science. Here are just a few examples of how modern scientific practices have been transformed by increasing knowledge, changing societal concerns, and advances in communication and technology.
Publication and peer review
The rise of the Internet has enabled scientific results to be publicized more rapidly than ever before possible. Journal articles are often made available online even before they are printed. This swift distribution of information can speed the pace of science since the latest studies can be scrutinized, replicated, and/or built upon with very little lag time. And as more and more journals provide records of reader comments on e-published articles, the process of peer review is being extended: many more scientists can provide feedback on a particular article and they may do it long after the article’s original publication. But the information flow doesn’t stop there. Journalists can also quickly access the latest scientific findings and begin to publicize them to the broader population.