Field of Science

Is our emphasis on lab safety keeping us from doing important science?

The physicist Ernest Marsden who discovered the atomic nucleus - admittedly one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time - with Ernest Rutherford and Hans Geiger once said that if modern safety restraints had been applied to their seminal experiment, it might never have worked. I think this provides an interesting commentary on our safety-conscious times.

Marsden’s statement would probably apply to many of the pioneering early nuclear discoveries: the neutron, fission, radioactive transmutation. Many of these discoveries hinged on observing rather small effects of nuclear reactions on ionization counters and photographic plates, effects which might not have been observed in the presence of elaborate safety measures. It’s also interesting to note that Enrico Fermi and his team of experimenters in Rome missed discovering nuclear fission in 1934 because they were using shielding (one wonders how different the history of the world might have been had he discovered it then). Not enough was known about the biological effects of radiation at that point, so the purpose of the shielding was not safety; nonetheless it underscores how using shielding equipment for safety might keep someone from making a key scientific discovery.

These days a lot of science experiments including home chemistry sets are dumbed down because of safety concerns. Safety is also an overriding concern in professional academic and industrial laboratories. When I was eleven my mom gifted me a chemistry set containing chemicals which would be unthinkable today: copper sulfate, potassium ferrocyanide, ammonium nitrate. Earlier sets even had sodium and magnesium. In his book "Uncle Tungsten", Oliver Sacks talked about how he unforgettably learnt about the differences in reactivity between the alkali metals (sodium through cesium) by literally dropping a pound of each into a pond. In fact it's worth reprinting his experience here because it's so memorably described. 

The last statement is worth remembering: there is no better way to learn an important scientific principle than through a vivid demonstration. My chemistry set taught me important science and was fun. I did not poison anyone or blow myself up. These days chemical sets are radically dumbed down. Some of them are absurdly advertised as “chemical free”. Not only are these sets less exciting, but they might also be less instructive in enabling discovery.

I am not saying that laboratory safety should be deprioritized; too many recent tragic accidents have emphasized how important it is. What I am saying is that we should be constantly trying to strike a balance between safety and discovery, and more importantly should be asking whether our safety equipment and policies might be hindering us from observing important phenomena. We should be asking questions like the following: is there some effect which might be hidden by the specifics of the safety equipment we are using (magnetic, electrical, “steric” etc.)? If we suspect that this might be the case, can we think of alternative experiments that might bypass the limitations of the original experiments and reveal previously unobserved effects? Is the safety equipment so all-pervasive that it’s becoming a part of the experiment itself, so to speak?

One of the best parts of science is that it’s an adventure. Adventures benefit from seeking out new phenomena that nobody has observed before, and there’s inevitably an element of risk involved in this endeavor. Everyone has to be mindful of safety when conducting experiments, but it’s always worth asking: is the emphasis on safety a part of the problem?