Primal Numbers – Slow and Steady

It’s no secret that people want fast results these days. Faster phones, faster food, faster everything. Science is hardly immune?even the supercomputer Watson has been enhanced to speed the pace of scientific discoveries. Sometimes, though, slowing things down can get you much further ahead.

In some ways, it seems like a contradiction. Scientific research in fields from agriculture to astrophysics has brought incredible benefits to humanity. It’s eased suffering with new drugs and powered our world with electricity. Accelerating the pace of research means we’ll see more benefits even faster?perhaps a cure for cancer, or a clean new energy source.

In spite of our modern mindset that faster is always better, plenty of examples prove that, especially when it comes to our health, that’s not always the case. Like with the new drugs that are fast-tracked through the Health Canada approval process. As the Toronto Star reports, more than a third of the drugs?close to 35 per cent?that went through the quick approval process “later received serious safety warnings or were withdrawn from the market.” That’s compared to 20 percent that went through the longer review process.

Perhaps the most well known failure in drug research is Thalidomide. Developed and licenced in the 1950s, the mild sedative also reduced symptoms of morning sickness. Unfortunately, no one took the time to test its possible side effects during pregnancy. The result? Nerve damage in some of the patients taking it, and over 10,000 children born worldwide with severe birth defects, including blindness and missing limbs. The only thing that researchers were slow to do was make the link between the drug and its serious side effects, and it was widely sold in Europe and North America until the early 1960s.

Then there’s the more recent case of the lab worker at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2012, in a rush to get to a meeting, the worker accidently infected samples of a mild avian flu with the deadly H5N1?and sent them out for use by other researchers. As Reuters reported, the lab worker “rushed through a procedure that required 90 minutes to ensure safety . . . in just 51 minutes.”

Naturally, we want scientific breakthroughs to make our lives better. We want cleaner energy, better medicine, and to know the undiscovered mysteries beyond our solar system. We want them to happen fast and we mutter about bureaucracy when scientists mention that a cure or a flying car is another 10 or 20 years away.

But it pays to remember that it takes time to get those things right. That research is a slow, painstaking process and that, sometimes, science hits a dead-end and has to go back to the drawing board.

Even if that means waiting over 200 years for a seed to sprout, such as in an experiment that William James Beale started back in 1879. Now that’s patience.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.