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The value of exploring jellyfish eyes: Scientist-penned book supports “curiosity-driven” research

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As an academic, I often encounter variations of the question "And so... what are you going to do with that?" In other words, why should anyone care about insights, experiments, and questions that serve no obvious functional purpose?

A PNAS release published earlier this week spotlights a novel that tackles just this issue. Joram Piatigorsky, PhD, a retired scientist from the NIH's National Eye Institute who now devotes his time to his passion for art and literature, went through the arduous process of writing and publishing a novel because he sees literature as an important way to make statements about society. And the statement that he wants to get across loud and clear is that basic research matters, and needs to be funded.

The book, called Jellyfish Have Eyes, is set in the near future and follows a scientist who gets into serious legal and professional trouble because he departs from research that is clearly related to a human disease in favor of researching jellyfish, and in a mix-up uses government funding to do so. Piatigorsky laments how in today's tight funding environment, students who would otherwise pursue basic questions - such as whether jellyfish have eyes - are forced to do more routine, translational research that doesn't make use of their creativity.

And when creativity gets stymied, important breakthroughs are simply missed. The release quotes the book's main character, who is modeled after Piatigorsky:

I justify my research on delving into the mysteries of Nature because generally the experiments yield new insights that benefit people. There’s penicillin, recombinant DNA, genetic engineering... Bacteria provided the first models for gene regulation, which set the stage for gene therapy. Sea slugs—snails without shells—revealed mysteries of memory. Birds have taught us that it’s possible to rest half the brain at a time. Think how useful it would be if we could be asleep and active at the same time.

Piatigorsky worries about the current research climate, where "anti-science politicians" force cuts to basic research and pundits and the public insist on knowing what "cure" a research project aims to find, says the release. But Piatigorsky is optimistic about the power of storytelling: "I have a very strong feeling that science is not a collection of facts. You have to make the facts into a story of communication… The narrative aspect of science is very compelling."

And, in case you were wondering, jellyfish do have eyes - "magnificent eyes. It depends on the species. They have lenses, corneas, retinas," says Piatigorsky in the release. No one knows what they can see or how vision might affect their behavior, but such impractical questions might lead to the next breakthrough. In the meantime, they promote curiosity and wonder about our world.

Previously: Research in medical school: the need to align incentives with value, Can science journals have beautiful prose? and Science is like an ongoing mystery novel, says Stanford neurobiologist Carla Shatz
Photo by Lassi Kurkijarvi

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