Practical research – invent a light bulb or study electrons?

Image of Light Bulb
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Earlier today I was reading up on the latest research in chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia.

Some of what I read was complicated – very complicated.

I read one article with a title like “Ion-gated channel activator and hyper-kinetic porphyrins in a rat model of post-encepaletic fatigue.” (OK, that wasn’t the real title – and some of those words I made up – but the actual title was at least that complex.)

I then read that the author of that publication had applied for, and received, something on the order of $3 million to continue his investigations.

Wow, that’s a lot of money. It made me wonder what sort of interesting data might emerge from that lab over the next several years. Plenty, I’m sure.

But my sense is that the money could be spent in better ways – at least if the goal is to find something that will cure or treat fibromyalgia (or any other chronic pain condition.) What we’re looking for – I think – is not just knowledge. We’re looking for something that’s more like an invention.

Picture of Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison

If so, then let’s look at the archetypal inventor: Edison.

The light bulb was an obvious need at the time. (In fact a number of other people, and corporations, were already working to develop a practical light bulb when Edison first began his efforts.)

What did Edison do? Well, what he didn’t do was begin by investigating electrons and how they move. That would have been interesting, and probably very important. But if Edison had taken that approach then it’s possible we’d all still be sitting in the dark – because the physics of electricity remain, at some deep level, a mystery. (Of course someone else would have invented the light bulb – but I’m sure you get the point.)

No, Edison didn’t worry so much about electricity. Instead, he experimented with several thousand different filaments in his search for one that would work. He didn’t (just) want knowledge – he wanted to overcome a problem. He wanted a solution. He wanted light.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big believer in basic research. It’s important that we gain a better understanding of the minute details of physiology. It’s possible that by doing so we’ll eventually arrive at a treatment or cure for fibromyalgia. So it’s critical that basic research on fibromyalgia continue.

But what if it takes 20 years (or a hundred, or a thousand) before we really know what’s going on with conditions like fibromyalgia? That won’t be good – no one wants to wait that long.

So let’s do the basic research – but let’s also try new things (provided they make at least some sense, of course.) Let’s not assume we need to know everything before we do anything. And let’s not assume that only a big pharmaceutical company can invent something that works. Because we have a big problem that needs a solution. We need something that works and we need it now.

Edison’s light bulb

“The electric light has caused me the greatest amount of study and has required the most elaborate experiments,” Edison wrote. “I was never myself discouraged, or inclined to be hopeless of success. I cannot say the same for all my associates.”

“Before I was through I had tested no fewer than 6,000 vegetable growths, and ransacked the world for the most suitable filament material.”


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