After discovering radium, Marie and Pierre Curie were approached with a number of offers for using radium in a number of products like chocolate bars, toothpaste, water, bread, and the list goes on and on. In many cases, these products came to fruition, even though eventually we would come to understand that they were dangerous as it related to health.
As a rule, understanding follows discovery. It can’t happen any other way. First we must explore, then uncover something new, then work to discover it’s secrets, uses, drawbacks and problems. Starting with the assumptions of problems is useful in protecting oneself from potential liabilities, such as if working with radioactive materials, wearing protective gear is appropriate. However, there will always be some element of the unknown in discovery.
The unknown doesn’t have to be related to health. It could be related to your reputation if you discover a political scandal and you’re a journalist. What will happen if you publish it? What will the powerful do to you? That’s just one example, the world is filled with others.
One reason we seek to elevate pioneers and risk-taking in society is because without them nothing would ever progress. Chuck Yeager was willing to be the first to fly prototype airplanes at the highest speeds ever recorded to make sure they were safe for flight. He became a role model.
Astronauts are willing to go to places others haven’t ever been before, where events that are unaccounted for can cause problems that the spaceships don’t have the proper resources available to deal with.
It’s easy to look at radioactive toothpaste with disdain. To wonder, “How could they have been so dumb?” However, that is the price of discovery. Today, we have put in place institutions like the Food and Drug Administration to become a holder of information about all the possible side effects and problems we should be thinking through based on past experiences, but even then, these are only limited to what we have seen, new discoveries and new problems lurk around every corner.
What to do then?
- Don’t let fear paralyze you from an important discovery.
- Seek to protect yourself in every way your mind can think up, but don’t give into the fear to stop exploring.
- Explore those areas where the stakes are something you are comfortable with.
- Be honest with the side effects if you know them, don’t sell snake oil to anybody.