I love my genetics class. It’s like sitting in the grownup version of show-and-tell, or story hour. Sometimes I literally bring popcorn. Now that I think about it, my nerdiness has been leaking out more and more lately so I hope you’ll indulge me.
I thought of something today—while the professor was lecturing about the studies and experiments that led to the discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA. How fast our understanding of the natural world has developed! The capacity and capability of our brains, made possible by human evolution, is astounding. In such a short time we’ve gone from simply existing to being able to question both why and HOW we exist. As simple academic truth we teach our children about microorganisms, transmission genetics, and even now we’re breaching the field of uncertainty surrounding genetic therapy and engineering.
These concepts themselves aren’t what caught my attention though. It was the realization that I took all of these facts for granted for so long. As an adolescent, it never occurred to me that someone actually discovered bacteria. I can regurgitate facts about when the use of penicillin was first implemented and yet, in my mind people always knew what I was then being taught. In my mind, those monumental discoveries had happened so long ago that an understanding of contemporaneous life predating them was unfathomable.
But those historical events aren’t lost to the recesses of history texts. They weren’t really that long ago—but as a child and even as a teenager, my understanding of what constitutes “a long time” completely undermined the credit due to all those brilliant minds.
All of the finesse and incredible progress related to the super-subject of SCIENCE seemed static to me. Microbiology, biochemistry, genetics—all of these were like stagnant pools from which a parade of teachers, professors, and doctors drew quantifiable cups to be dumped upon the heads of their students. The epiphany seems insultingly obvious now. We ought to think of science like prolific tides that ebb and swell—a composition that could change with a simple sigh of understanding from any laboratory on Earth.
To a twenty-two-year-old, fresh out of undergraduate studies, fifty years feels immeasurable. As a young adult I’m trying to understand the speed with which scientific innovation and examination occurs and has occurred. A relatively brief stretch that I recognize will only seem faster as I personally amass more life, more time in which I can contextualize the events of the world. The speed is already dizzying, especially with the recent supreme court decision regarding Myriad Genetics Inc. How many Americans realize that up until two weeks ago, June 12th 2013, entire genes within the depths of their genetic material, the fundamental code that functions as the operating system for all life on Earth, were patented?
When I’m sixty, there will be new discoveries. Ones that I witnessed as they were born and then grew in confidence and certainty. Ones that will seem novel and infinitely illuminating even though their truth was always present. Discoveries that my children will take for granted, swimming in their own stagnant pools and unable to understand what life would have been like before we knew.