Screening for curiosity

What Do Smartphones and HIV Have in Common?

Curiosity, obsession and dogged endurance, combined with self-criticism, have brought me to my ideas.

Albert Einstein

What do the discovery of HIV and smartphones have in common? They almost didn’t happen.

Her Curiosity Wouldn’t Take “No” for an Answer

“When you are a scientist, curiosity is the first thing that you must have,” says French virologist Françoise Barré-Sinoussi. She and her research colleague Luc Montagnier discovered the retrovirus HIV in 1983 (and together received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2008), but had Barré-Sinoussi not been highly driven by her curiosity, the discovery might have come much later, or may never have been made at all.

Barré-Sinoussi says that, as a young woman, she pursued a degree in natural science so as not to burden her family with a more expensive degree in medicine. “Towards the end of my degree, I seriously questioned the possibility of research as a career option. It was therefore important for me to gain laboratory experience,” she explains.

She reached out to dozens of labs, offering to volunteer her time, but was rejected by all of them until a friend pointed her to Jean-Claude Chermann at the Pasteur Institute site at Marne-la-Coquette, a western suburb of Paris.

“Chermann was studying the relationship between retroviruses and cancers in mice. Although I was supposed to continue attending classes for my degree, I spent all my time in the lab.” She says she only showed up for class on exam days — and passed every one of them.

When Barré-Sinoussi received her Ph.D., she approached a head of the Pasteur Institute about continuing her work there. She recalls: “He said, ‘Do you think you can have a position at Pasteur?’ I said, ‘That is one of my dreams.’ And he said, ‘Women in science, they never do anything. They are only good at looking after the home and children. Forget this dream.’"

But she couldn’t, and wouldn’t, forget. Instead, Barré-Sinoussi’s insatiable curiosity led her to post-doctoral work in the United States. A year later she won a large grant, allowing her to return to Pasteur. Back in her beloved lab, she continued to study retroviruses, ultimately making the discovery that led to the development of antiretroviral medications that have saved millions of lives around the world. (Read Barré-Sinoussi’s brief, inspiring autobiography, written for the Nobel Prize’s website.)

  How a carrot looks in the middle   How a carrot looks in the middle

Carrots, Liquid Crystals, and the Nature of Matter

Curiosity and perseverance are common threads running through some of the most significant discoveries of all time. In 1888, Austrian botanist Friedrich Reinitzer, who was conducting research on cholesterol, saw something unusual in cholesteryl benzoate. As Reinitzer heated up this natural substance found in carrots, he noticed that it seemed to have two different melting points.

During the first melting point, the cholesteryl benzoate became a cloudy liquid, but at a higher temperature, the liquid became clear and transparent. Rather than dismiss the cloudy liquid as an anomaly, Reinitzer’s curiosity led him to repeat the heat test, which yielded the same results. Wondering about the cloudy liquid, Reinitzer reached out for answers from German physicist Otto Lehmann.

When Lehmann performed Reinitzer’s tests, he sensed that the cholesteryl benzoate in its cloudy liquid state behaved differently than it did in its clear liquid state, and continued testing until he was convinced that the cloudy liquid state was in fact a new fourth property of matter, between solid and liquid, which he called “liquid crystal.” (The other property being gas.)

The scientific community rejected Reinitzer’s “liquid crystal” state of matter at first, believing it was merely a mix of solid and liquid in a state of transition. But Lehmann’s curiosity couldn’t let the idea go. Over the next 30 years, Lehmann continued to study liquid crystals, determined to prove their existence, even developing new instruments, such as a heatable crystallization microscope, to hone his findings.

Had it not been for Reinitzer and Lehmann’s curiosity (combined with Lehmann’s Einstein-inspired “dogged endurance”) the liquid crystal display, also known as LCD, may never have been developed – and the media we take for granted today, including flat screen TVs and smartphones – wouldn’t exist. 

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