Scientists are such navel gazers

March 30, 2009

So I’m scanning the Science Blogs home page when I spot this Neurotopia post on why belly buttons collect lint – a real fluff piece – nyuk nyuk. It’s about a study reported in the journal Medical Hypotheses that made the rounds in mid-March, in which a Viennese researcher collected his belly button lint for three years – he was an innie, I take it – and even shaved his belly to test whether the hair there was the source. Let me ruin it for you: apparently so!

Now what this makes me think is

1. Seth Roberts is a true scientist, because

2. the scientific mind is addicted to curiosity.

As Neurotopia’s Scicurious puts it:

We get hold of a question, and we just can’t let it go! Often, that question is something like “why do pancreatic beta cells in the Islets of Langerhans self-destruct in type I diabetes, but alpha cells are left unharmed?”, or “what are the mechanisms in the brain which bring about the symptoms of depression?” But sometimes, those questions are “why do some people have SO MUCH belly button lint?”

Gabby neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran made the same point in a book I read recently called Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist. It’s a bunch of autobiographical essays by well-spoken scientists and related thinkers. (And edited by John Brockman – natch.) I’d recommend you check it out from the library, like I did.

Oddly, Ramachandran was I believe the only one to make the point about how important raging curiosity is to a scientist. Question: Does that go for all scientists? All science enthusiasts? V.S. also compared himself to a Victorian gentleman scientist – an amateur, in other words – and I kind of respect that. See his contribution to Atul Gawande’s brilliant New Yorker piece about uncontrollable itching.


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