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Science is driving our conversation unlike ever before. From climate change to intelligent design, HIV/AIDS to stem cells, science education to space exploration, science is figuring prominently in our discussions of politics, religion, philosophy, business and the arts.
A little over 300 years ago, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, a dry goods seller from Delft in Holland, learned to grind glass into lenses and fashion the best microscopes the world had ever seen. In those days, the idea of being a "scientist" as a profession was ludicrous. Natural philosophy was pastime for nobility or at least those with considerable disposable income. Leeuwenhoek was a successful business man, and in his spare time, he pointed his lenses at pond water (among other things). As Paul de Kruif recounted in his brilliant book Microbe Hunters:
[Leeuwenhoek] peeped into a fantastic sub-visible world of little things, creatures that had lived, had bred, had battled, had died, completely hidden from and unknown to men from the beginning of time. Beasts these were of a kind that ravaged and annihilated whole races of men ten million times larger than they were themselves. Beings these were, more terrible than fire-spitting dragons or hydra-headed monsters. They were silent assassins that murdered babies in warm cradles and kings in sheltered places. It was this invisible, insignificant, but implacable world that Leeuwenhoek had looked into for the first time of all men in all countries.
I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the discovery of "little animals," the wee beasties from which this blog derives its name, has radically changed the course of humanity. But how did humanity learn of this monumental news? Leeuwenhoek wrote a letter.
Since then, the world of science communication has changed radically. These days, there's an entire industry of academic publishers that have become so fully integrated into the research system that many scientists don't realize that there's any distinction between doing science and publishing in journals. However, these journals cost an enormous amount of money (mostly public tax dollars), yet add little value to scientific research, while simultaneously slowing the pace of discovery and limiting the dissemination of knowledge. Recently, some of these journals have backed a new law that would further inhibit public dissemination of science in an effort to prop up their already massive profit margins.
But before I get to that, some history.