The thing about scientists is that, as in all walks of life, they have a range of abilities. And some people work on rather pointless areas and do experiments that don’t tell you very much. For example: “We added compound A to the cells, and they went a bit rounder.” This sort of thing is really not so interesting because the scientist is not really making a serious attempt to *understand*.
Most scientists, however, don’t fall into this trap. I’d like to think that I was one of them. A couple of the results from my experiments are now included in textbooks (on biochemistry and virology), so I would like to think that I have done something useful and interesting.
I do sometimes read something which seems utterly pointless, but I try to be forgiving because it’s not always obvious when you’re reading work from outside your own field what is valuable. My colleague Eleanor Maguire (UCL) won the IgNobel prize (which is a sort of spoof Nobel for work which the committee consider to be silly or pointless). Her work was on the size of taxi drivers’ hippocampi (the hippocampus is part of the brain involved in memory and in finding your way about). This no doubt sounded pretty silly to the American committee, because (so far as I know) American cab drivers have no special training and are not reknowned for being able to find their way about. London Cab Drivers on the other hand are expert navigators and have to train for two years before getting their licence after passing a very strict test called “The Knowledge”. Eleanors work showed that their hippocampi are a different shape from ordinary people’s, and it’s actually pretty well regarded in the area I work in – it was one of the first times scientists had found parts of the brain apparently growing to accomodate a special skill.