Wilhelm Röntgen was a physicist, a man far more interested in understanding the building blocks of our universe than discovering medicines to cure the masses.
In 1895, Röntgen performed a series of experiments with something called a Hittorf-Crookes tube, a glass container best described as a light-bulb on steroids. Röntgen was particularly interested in what happened when an electric current was passed through the gas-filled tube. After flicking the switch for the current, he noticed that a piece of paper in his lab that was coated with barium started to glow. He tried again, this time covering the Hittorf-Crookes tube with a black bag and moving the barium-soaked paper behind a closed door. The glowing continued, even despite the bag and door obstructing the path between the tube and the paper.
Perhaps not one for ‘Husband of the Year’ accolades, Röntgen then recruited his wife, Anna, into his experiment by placing her left hand in between the tube and the paper. After several moments, the scientist and his wife were left spellbound by an image that had never been seen before.
There on display was a picture – now one of the most famous of all human-made images – showing in exquisite detail the delicate bones of her hand. The nature of the rays that had been transmitted from the tube to the paper was unknown to Röntgen, and so he ascribed to this phenomenon the letter of the alphabet used in mathematics for an unknown variable. Röntgen had just performed the first X-ray.
The discovery of X-rays led Röntgen to receive the very first Nobel Prize for Physics in 1901. This was first and foremost a discovery of Physics, but had the Nobel Committee waited a bit longer, they may well have awarded him a prize for Medicine too. X-rays revolutionised medical practices, allowing for the first time detailed images of the inner workings of the body without the need to pierce the flesh. Not for the first time in history, a person on a pursuit of knowledge changed the world in the most unexpected of ways.
The pursuit of knowledge
So much of the history of humanity is the history of the pursuit of knowledge.
Sometimes the knowledge obtained has had unintended consequences, such as Röntgen’s X-ray. Sometimes the knowledge has had thoroughly intended consequences, such as the invention of steam power and the industrial revolution that it sparked. Sometimes the knowledge has had no consequences at all – just ask your local alchemists and phrenologists. But even these latter circumstances are to be celebrated. It was the simple act of humans pursuing knowledge – even those pursuits that proved fruitless – that led us to the astonishing ability to cure diseases, send people to the moon, and, on a no less grand scale, create enough food to feed the world.
The case for the Arts is just as strong. The page-turning books of history, linguistics and fiction that you read, the art exhibitions and performances that you eagerly await, the documentary TV series that you obsess about: all of these are the result of people exploring the limits of human knowledge and creativity.
A loss of purpose
More than ever, we’re living in an era that smothers the natural human urge to seek knowledge.
Pursuits of knowledge are increasingly limited to those that have the potential to increase economic growth, as if the stock exchanges of the world are the only indices of human advance.
Progress on these pursuits is tied to ever more pernickety and meaningless benchmarks, as if the path to truly world-changing ideas can be determined upfront and then follow a neat, straight-line from A to B.
Then there are the commentators who deride the pursuers of knowledge as ‘intellectual elites’, as if there is a clause in their own blue-ribboned contracts that prevents them from entering a public library to share in this knowledge.
Perhaps these pressures have always existed, but have they ever been as strong as they are today?
Sydney Brenner, a pioneer of our genetic code, and Peter Higgs, father of the Higgs Boson, have both recently revealed strong doubts that their own breakthroughs would ever have happened in the current climate that values economic advance over knowledge accumulation. Is it time that we listen?
Knowledge is for all of us
In times past, the great and not-so-great scientists and artists were supported by Patrons. The greatest Patrons of the current day are Governments, and thus, tax-payers. For this reason, it is absolutely essential that there is a large degree of economic rationalism, accountability and constructive scrutiny.
But to accompany these virtues, there must be an unequivocal understanding between all of us that seeking knowledge – for whatever reason and for whatever outcome – is an end in itself. Sometimes these knowledge pursuits will end in nothing at all, but sometimes they will end with the X-ray.
Knowledge and its pursuits are to be celebrated, not lampooned as the domain of those who’ve lost touch with society. To think otherwise is to completely misunderstand the history of humanity and its progress. Knowledge is for all of us to discover, to use and to enjoy – tweed jackets with leather elbow pads are strictly optional.
We humans are an inquisitive bunch, and I urge us to encourage these instincts in ourselves and others, rather than stifle them. History shows that we will all be the better for it.
Header image: 1914, World War 1. The X-ray room at the Kitchener Hospital. Photographer: H. D. Girdwood. (British Library on Unsplash).