The Thrill of Discovery

On the morning of 3 September, 1928, Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming returned from a month-long holiday to his dusty work bench, deep within the bowels of St Mary’s Hospital in London. A veteran medic of World War One, Professor Fleming came back ready to clear out a stack of old petri dishes containing colonies of the boil-causing Staphylococcus bacteria that he left and failed to disinfect before breaking out his Hawaiian shirt and sandals. But just as he set about tossing  what he considered ruined specimens, he noticed something peculiar in one of the dishes. A stinky little blob of mould. He peeked in closely and noticed that the area surrounding this mould was clear. The bacteria was absent where the mould was present – it had killed the germs. Completely by accident, Fleming had discovered Penicillin, the antibiotic that has saved millions of lives and won him the Nobel Prize. Thanks to Fleming’s mouldy lab supplies, a sneeze is no longer feared as a death knell. It’s one of the most famous stories in science – not least for the discovery’s profound influence in medicine, but for the fortuitous circumstances around it.

Some 83 years later, scientists working at the Swiss physics laboratory superpower, CERN and the Gran Sasso lab in Italy announced they may have discovered particles that travel faster than the speed of light – by accident. This news in September shook the science world to the ground – someone was actually saying they just disproved Einstein’s famous theorem – that no object can travel faster than light. None. Ever. Full-stop. But the gospel according to Albert is now under scrutiny after these recent claims from the scientists. Basically, neutrinos (sub-atomic particles) were shot down a huge subterranean tube into a particle detector some 730 km away. When the scientists registered the results, the data showed – shockingly – that the neutrinos had arrived at the end of their journey in a brisk 2.43 milliseconds – some 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light. The results are still in dispute, but the incredible part of this story (well,  maybe the second-most incredible) is that the scientists weren’t conducting the world’s tiniest race between light and neutrinos, they had actually set the experiment to try and convert the neutrinos into another type of neutrino. Testing the little particle’s top-speed was never part of the road test; this experiment was never going for glory. Unlike Fleming’s world changing work eight decades ago, this kind of  accidental discovery is getting rare in high-end modern science.

Alexander Fleming's lab

Alexander Fleming's lab. (PHOTO:

Science is the beautiful pursuit of knowledge. The endeavour of science can be laborious to be frustrating and can sometimes be overwhelming. But human inquisitive instinct forbids us from abandoning the chase for enlightenment – and the paths it takes us (opposed to path we try to take) are breathtaking. Discovery is the scientist’s opiate – an addictive, all-consuming habit. Every new microbe discovered through the lens of a microscope; every detection of an unusual orbital path of a planet’s satellite; every new piece fitted into the genetic puzzle – it all goes towards the great bank of human knowledge, expanding as fast as the universe it is chasing.

This year is the International Year of Chemistry, last year was the year of Biodiversity, 2009 was the International Year of Astronomy and 2008 was the International Year of the Potato, so starchy foods and science are clearly at the top of the global agenda. Discovery is the force driving a scientist, but with it carries a paradox that is as old as recorded science itself. How are you to expect the unexpected?

Greek philosopher Plato argued thousands of years ago, that true originality is impossible to achieve without chance. In Plato’s Dialogues, Meno throws a curly question at Socrates:  “How will you inquire into a thing when you are wholly ignorant of what it is? Even if you happen to bump right into it, how will you know it is the thing you did not know?” Socrates serenely strokes his beard and responds, sagely, “A man cannot search either for what he knows or for what he does not know. He cannot search for what he knows – since he knows it, there is no need to search – nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for.”

Unfortunately for those gunning for some Nobel bling, Socrates’ logic is acute. While other legendary thinkers such as Aristotle and Michael Polanyi point to things such as tacit knowledge (think riding a bicycle, or speaking a native language) as a fly in Plato’s paradox ointment; science as a discipline is somewhat of a prison for knowledge. It requires boundaries, rules, precision, control. Big money for research grants comes with big responsibility. Scientists can become accountable to fidgety investors who bear little tolerance for uncertainty. the  very kind of serendipity that lead Fleming to penicillin. There are few these days who’d happily hand over their money to your typical, frizzy-haired mad scientist. Predictability and control is safer.

As if in some exclusive club of science – in order to be a ‘fact’, an idea or theory or thing needs the backing of other, certified, facts. Without it, the numbers at the end of an equation will be worth nothing more than the chalk dust it’s scribbled in. By logic, if a scientist proves their hypothesis – does that warrant a new discovery, or is it simply theoretical confirmation? If they do not, is that a failure in the labs? Well, as most things are when discussed in that wonderfully grey philosophical realm – yes and no.

CERN laboratory

Meanwhile at CERN... (PHOTO: Scientific American)

A pioneer of molecular genetics, Max Delbrück , coined the  handy principle of  ‘limited sloppiness’,  which suggests researchers shouldn’t balk at making a minor miscalculation, or forgetting to disinfect a petri dish. “If you are too sloppy, then you never get reproducible results, and then you never can draw any conclusions,” said Professor Delbruck, “But if you are just a little sloppy, then when you see something startling you… nail it down.” It deftly sidesteps the knowledge paradox by placing just a little of the responsibility in the hands of fate. ‘Sloppiness’ isn’t an encouragement for scientists to just abandon the measuring beaker and just dump the whole bucket of acid in to ‘see what happens’, which, in most cases would probably be death or hideous scarring and irreversible blindness.  Rather, Delbruck meant there needs to be a degree of flexibility – to make sure that there is indeed room for the unexpected and to be perceptive enough to notice it – rather than dismiss as a failure to hit a hypothesis, and draw a line through it.

None have summed this idea up better than Claude Bernard, the brilliant French physiologist and early influencer of modern biomedical research. Bernard, described by historian Bernard Cohen  as one of the greatest scientists of all time, stressed the importance of free science some  150 years ago:  “Men who have excessive faith in their theories or ideas are not only ill prepared for making discoveries; they also make very poor observations,” he said. “Of necessity, they observe with a preconceived idea, and when they devise an experiment, they can see, in its results, only a confirmation of their theory. In this way they distort observations and often neglect very important facts because they do not further their aim.”

While this ideal still sits somewhat out of place in the measured and sterile world of modern science, it’s those researchers who recognise the pivotal role of chance who are better equipped to achieve their goals. Pure, random chance is rare, but opportunity is ever-present. Professor Fleming was, after all, deliberately searching for new anti-bacterial agents, and Charles Goodyear, the man who stumbled across the technique for vulcanising rubber by nonchalantly brushing his hands above a heated stove, had been furiously seeking such a thing for years. Archimedes (yes, another ancient Greek) was tasked with the tricky task of determining the density of a gold crown without melting it down. He famously bolted down the street sans toga in excitement when he twigged onto the theory of displacement by simply setting into his evening bath, probably to ponder about his conundrum. Had any of these men not possessed a ready and open mind, these windows of profound opportunity would have been lost in a laboratory bin, the bottom of a sponge, or underneath an ancient Greek rubber-ducky. It’s almost as if providence – a sworn enemy of science -cheekily lifted the covers off what they were looking for, but didn’t let them know when, nor where, nor what until that enlightened moment of ‘Eureka!’

Serendipitous discovery is responsible for some incredible things we take for granted today. Without a bit of fate we’d not have discovered the x-ray, plastic, radioactivity, pacemakers or helium. The world would be a lot less sweet (and the dental profession would go out of business) without coca cola, ice blocks, choc-chip cookies and artificial sweetener. Parties would be far less debauched without the accidental discoveries of brandy, LSD, Viagra and vaseline. In fact, the Nobel Prize itself may not even exist had Alfred Nobel not have clumsily spilled some nitro-glycerine onto some sawdust to discover dynamite (immediately after changing his soiled long-johns).

These discoveries literally changed the world. And it’s rare to use that phrase as fact, not cliche. Today, experimentation seems to be more about confirming a theory and less about sheer curiousity. The term: ‘modern science’ sheds the romantic connotation cultivated in the Enlightenment and replaces it with the sterile lab. Scientists are no longer hands-on visionaries but pedantic in goggles and lab coats. We’ve somewhat lost the idea of the scientist working for the joy of discovery and not with the burden of investor expectation upon their shoulders. It’s hard to imagine a researcher at CERN trying to explain the principle of limited sloppiness to those who have invested millions into the Large Hadron Collider. Will we ever discover this mysterious Higgs-Boson – the so-called god particle – exactly as outlined in their hypothesis? Or are we going to need a bit of luck to discover the origins of the universe? How can you look for something if you don’t know what it is, and then how do you find it if you can’t recognise it as what you were looking for?

Maybe it’s time the folk at CERN took a holiday, and maybe forget to turn the Collider off for a while.


2 Comments on “The Thrill of Discovery”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Fantastic piece, incredibly interesting. Brian Schmidt’s discovery that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate is yet another example of an accidental finding from a completely different study. Perhaps the solution is not so much requesting time/money to conduct bizarre experiments, but training scientists to see beyond the results they expect to find – dificult of course when they accidently disocver something outside of their field of expertise.

    I love the quote by Bernard as well – perhaps you could do another piece on how result expectations can skew how scientists view their results. One example that springs to mind is the sperm and the egg tale of an active vs passive egg as a reflection of the position of women in society as passive.

    • Many thanks! Not that I’m trained in science, but the romanticism of science seems lost today when it is so minutely divided into fields, as you say. I’ve probably been reading too much about the Enlightenment, Newton and the likes. There’s definitely scope to explore the idea of prejudiced science. It goes with anything goal-orientated in life, you’ll consciously or not find ways to interpret things to your convenience. Shaping information to further your aims and so forth. Chin-scratchingly interesting, myes.


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