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Careful! What we think of as “junk” may be something of real value

For many decades modern researchers have wondered how the cement used by the Romans two millennia ago could last longer than the cement of our time, since Roman cement contains a not insignificant amount of rubbish. Answer: that "garbage", far from being it, was the key ingredient to give cement durability.

That well-known story came back to mind when I read a recent article (April 12, 2023) on BBC Future stating that over the last 20 years more than $3.7 billion was invested in determining how 98% of the 3 billion “letters” in human genes were just “junk” (scientists used that word, not me.)

In other words, we could keep only 2% of our DNA because that is where the “instruction manual” of our genes is kept, and get rid of the rest, considered as “material without meaning or purpose”. But that was before. According to new discoveries, what was thought to be 98% of "junk" in our DNA is now thought of now as "the place of processing and response to external information."

The article explains that the repeated sequences within our DNA, known as transposons, were initially ignored in genetic studies, until it was determined that they are "elements so extremely ancient" that they could be considered among "the earliest forms of life."

In short, without those elements previously considered "garbage" or “junk”, not only we humans would not be alive, but possibly there would be no life at all. That “junk” was something (is something) of the highest value.

As this column is not a genetics lesson, interested people can look up the full story on BBC Future. But the lesson for practical life is clear: simply because we do not understand something, or because that "something" does not fulfill a function that we can detect, that does not mean that "something" is garbage.

Even more, it is very possible that this "garbage" is precisely the central element, the cornerstone, the key to understanding what is being studied, or what is being lived.

Just as scientists claimed that Roman-made cement was full of junk, only to find out later that it wasn't junk at all, and just as scientists said 98% of our DNA was junk, when it wasn't, either, the In the same way, in our daily life we quickly classify as “junk” everything that we do not understand or appreciate.

One could argue that "junk" is a relative term. It is said that what is trash to one person is treasure to another. And it's true. But what we are suggesting is that sometimes, perhaps almost always, we are quick to dismiss something, say an idea or a suggestion, simply because we don't understand it.

Instead of being honest and saying, "This is something I don't understand at this point in my life," we say, "This is complete rubbish." But, contrary to what scientists who continue to investigate and change their minds do, we seldom go through discarded “junk” in case we misjudged its value. 

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