The Big Picture
In the quest for increased sensitivity or higher resolution, let’s not lose sight of our objectives.
Rich Whitworth |
In a world of increasingly amazing technological marvels, it’s easy to become obsessed with progress. ASMS 2015 in St Louis was a showcase for innovation – with impressive launches from companies big and small. There is no doubt that technology (hardware and software) drives overall advances in the analytical sciences – and science in general, for that matter.
And incremental improvements can also have a big impact – over time. As James Jorgenson notes about the limits of liquid chromatography: “When I look at what’s changed over the past year, I am always disappointed. However, when I look at what has changed over a decade, I am always amazed. How does the incremental accumulation of 10 years’ of disappointments eventually become an exciting qualitative shift in performance?”
A good question. Answers are more than welcome...
But when I attend press conferences that simply cite increases in performance in terms of numbers (however big or small), Hans-Gerd Janssen’s words often ring in my ears: “Performance should be fit-for-purpose and not necessarily a World Record attempt” (1). In some cases, clever solutions that help end users do their day-to-day job are more relevant. At ASMS this year, a number of “work-flow” solutions moved us away from the numbers game, aiming to match such industry needs; for example, in biopharmaceutical analysis. Ironically, speaking to professionals in that industry, the big request is clear: “we need more sensitivity!” (Unfortunately, they also want it in an easy-to-use, robust package that rapidly pumps out extremely reproducible data...)
Ruedi Aebersold offers a candid perspective from proteomics: “In many cases, the most important parameter is not how many proteins we see or quantify [...] but rather precision and reproducibility in the measurements we do make.” He also notes that it would be great to see everything! Aye, there’s the rub. Certainly, the ultimate in analysis would be the ability to measure everything at single-molecule sensitivity with 100 percent accuracy and reproducibility. But we’re not there yet; until then, we need to consider the big picture in our own field. What is most important?
Surprisingly, a blog from best-selling author Seth Godin got me onto this topic (2): “High resolution is not the same as accurate [...] You don’t need an electron microscope to figure out if a ball is round. (In fact, it will almost certainly tell you something less than useful.)” Godin is not a scientist, but he is often very thought provoking.