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Past wisdom

The recent Nature PastCast series is instructive as well as entertaining.

Four decades ago, in August 1975, a short paper on antibodies was published in Nature. The findings spawned a multibillion-dollar drug industry: the monoclonal antibody drugs Herceptin, used to treat breast cancer, and Humira, used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, were together worth around US$15.4 billion to the pharmaceutical industry in 2012. But the revolution was nearly stillborn: the published technique to make monoclonal antibodies could not be reproduced. The crisis was such, says historian Lara Marks at King’s College London, that the authors considered withdrawing their article from Nature.

It was years before the investigations paid off and the huge medical potential of monoclonal antibodies started to crystallize. “Nowadays it seems prophetic,” says Greg Winter, who made the first monoclonal antibody for use in humans. “But at that point I don’t think anyone had realized the importance.”

If those who do not learn from the past are truly doomed to repeat the same mistakes, then Nature has done its bit over the past few months to help them avoid that fate.

There are many lessons from history in our archive, alongside nuggets of scientific insight and experience. Some of these — and contemporary reflections on them from experts such as Marks — have been presented in the Nature PastCast, a 12-part audio series on the history of science that draws to a close this week. Some stories featured in the series are humbling; others simply entertaining. All are relevant.

Are you navigating a tricky international collaboration? So was astronomer Arthur Eddington, who tried to mount an expedition to view a solar eclipse as the First World War was drawing to a close. He was an Englishman — a pacifist Quaker to boot — trying to find evidence to support a German-born physicist’s theory (Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity). Or maybe your desk is piled high with a backlog of data needing analysis? In the mid-1980s, climate scientist Jonathan Shanklin had to sift through reams of the stuff before the evidence for the ozone hole popped out at him.

Or are you having trouble avoiding jargon in your latest write-up? In a November 1919 discussion of relativity, the physicist J. J. Thomson is reported to have ‘regretted the very complicated form in which Einstein expressed his theory, and hoped it might be possible to put it into a form in which it would be more generally comprehensible and useful’.

Some of the best stories are those that reflect a simple commitment to doing science. In November 1924, palaeontologist Raymond Dart was getting ready to appear as best man at his friend’s wedding when a box of fossils arrived at his home in Johannesburg. Having an inkling of its content, he couldn’t resist opening the package. In his diary, Dart recounts how the groom himself had to drag him away. “My God, Ray, you’ve got to finish dressing!”

Wilhelm Röntgen showed similar mettle. According to Otto Glasser’s 1934 biography, in the days after he first discovered X-rays, Röntgen ate and slept in his lab “in order to avoid the distracting influence of daily trivialities, and to be able to continue his experiments immediately in case of a sudden inspiration”. Once Röntgen had published his X-ray experiments, a journalist asked him what he thought of his new findings. Röntgen gave a reply that every researcher should consider sticking on their fridge. “I did not think; I investigated.”

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Past wisdom. Nature 507, 274 (2014).

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