At the first stage, a small number of scientists would somewhat leisurely discuss a problem that would appear esoteric to others, such as whether cell cycle is controlled by an oscillator or whether cells can commit suicide. At this stage, the understanding of the problem increases slowly, and scientists are generally nice to each other, a few personal antipathies notwithstanding. Then, an unexpected observation, such as the discovery of cyclins or the finding that apoptosis failure can contribute to cancer, makes many realize that the previously mysterious process can be dissected with available tools and, importantly, that this effort may result in a miracle drug. At once, the field is converted into a Klondike gold rush with all the characteristic dynamics, mentality, and morals. A major driving force becomes the desire to find the nugget that will secure a place in textbooks, guarantee an unrelenting envy of peers, and, at last, solve all financial problems. The assumed proximity of this imaginary nugget easily attracts both financial and human resources, which results in a rapid expansion of the field. The understanding of the biological process increases accordingly and results in crystal clear models that often explain everything and point at targets for future miracle drugs. People at this stage are not necessarily nice, though, as anyone who has read about a gold rush can expect.Eventually,
the field reaches a stage at which models, that seemed so complete, fall apart, predictions that were considered so obvious are found to be wrong, and attempts to develop wonder drugs largely fail. This stage is characterized by a sense of frustration at the complexity of the process, and by a sinking feeling that despite all that intense digging the promised cure-all may not materialize. In other words, the field hits the wall, even though the intensity of research remains unabated for a while, resulting in thousands of publications, many of which are contradictory or largely descriptive. The flood of publications is explained, in part, by the sheer amount of accumulated information (about 10,000 papers on apoptosis were published yearly over the last few years), which makes reviewers of the manuscripts as confused and overwhelmed as their authors. This stage can be summarized by the paradox that the more facts we learn the less we understand the process we study. It becomes slowly apparent that even if the anticipated gold deposits exist, finding them is not guaranteed.
The author goes on to compare the complexity of biological systems to the complexity of a radio. He notes that while an engineer would have no problem fixing a radio--given the proper diagrams and such--the biologist is not necessarily aided by all that is known (and diagrammed) in solving his particular problem, i.e. developing the next miracle drug. The author posits that what is required is a new language for biologists--one entailing much greater quantitation and computer power. In other words, an engineering approach. It's an interesting read even for the non-scientist.Hat tip: Improbable Research