Make your own free website on Tripod.com

THE HABIT OF DISCOVERY

BREAKTHROUGHS: LUCK OR WHAT?



breakthroughs Some evidence suggests, superficially perhaps that great breakthroughs can neither be planned nor predicted; you just have to get lucky.(1)



For example, the story that Pasteur learned about immunization because he happened to leave cultures sitting out when he left Paris for two months on a vacation; that Minkowski discovered that diabetes stems form a disorder of the pancreas from a sharp-eyed lab assistant who noticed that the urine of a dog who accidentally urinated on the floor after an operation removing his pancreas attracted flies; that Alexander Fleming discovered lysozyme (a bacteria-killing enzyme in tears, saliva, mucus and other bodily fluids and tissues) by a fluke from his own runny nose dripping accidentally into a petri dish of bacteria; and other countless similar stories such as the discovery of the X-ray by Wilhelm Roentgen, and pulsars by Jocelyn Bell, and anaphylaxis by Richet. Several writers (Beveridge in Art of Scientific Investigation; Braithwaite in Scientific Explanation; Hempel in Philosophy of Natural Science; Hull in Philosophy of Biological Science; and Popper in Logic of Scientific Discovery) suggest that "discovery is a product not of particular methods of logical inquiry but of being in the right place at the right time."

weakness of Suggests that scientific breakthroughs are the luck result of illogical processes. This ignores argument what scientists do from day to day. It overlooks the fact that they search out instances where what we know does not seem to account for our experience: looking for paradoxes, contradictions, anomalies.



thesis The process of discovery has something to do with the way scientists logically go about their work. What we now need to do is redefine the scientific method in a way that accounts for the process of discovery.

In fact, upon reexamination, the discoveries mentioned as due to luck were far from that; Pasteur's meticulous notes show he was aware of the problem and that the story was inaccurate; the same for Minkowski's discovery and Fleming's.



the habits Many great scientists seem to have incorporated play into their lives and work, according to Root-Bernstein.

Fleming, for example, was noted for his love of games. His research was a game to him: "I play with microbes," adding "It is very pleasant to break the rules." Lorenz, the great animal behaviorist, for example, would live among his research subjects: dozens of species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and fishes. He did not quantify, control, or consciously experiment. He got to know each creature individually, then threw them together, watch for the unexpected, the unusual or bizarre in the chaos that followed (p.33).



Thus, "one mental quality that facilitates discovery...is a willingness to goof around, to play games, and to cultivate a degree of chaos aimed at revealing the unusual or the unexpected."



There seems to be no correlation between the difficulty of a problem and its importance; a trivial observation can yield surprises of great significance in the mind of one possessed of imagination.



Some scientists also develop a feel, an intuition for the problem they working on, along with their imagination. Salk, for example, would picture himself as a virus, or as a cancer cell, and try to sense what it would be like to be either; he would also imagine himself as the immune system, engaged in combat with the virus or cancer cell.

Another typical habit is to look for hidden patterns, verbal as well as visual.



Discovery, according to Albert Szent-Gyoergyi, consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.



The act of discovery evolves from using all our mental abilities including game playing, universal thinking, identification with the subject matter, intuition, imagination, pattern recognition, identifying deficiencies or inconsistencies in our understanding of the world, of people.



Again, "it appears that the most important discoveries arise not from verification or disproof of preconceptions but from the unexpected results of testing them."



educational We should question funding simply experiments whose implications results are foreseeable instead of those most likely to surprise. It is important but not sufficient to train students only in methods of demonstration and proof, or evaluate them on their ability to reach correct, accepted conclusions. This tends to build up the edifice of codified science without suggesting how to generate problems of the sort that lead to new discoveries.

1. Ideas for these notes are taken from an article entitled "Setting the Stage for Discovery" by Robert S. Root-Bernstein, appearing in THE SCIENCES, May/June 1988, pp. 26-34.