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Accidental Genius

The World's Greatest By-Chance Discoveries

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Introduction: The Eureka Moment

This book presents stories of moments when fate stepped in to stimulate a moment of sudden insight that changed human understanding. The anecdotes here are separated in chronological order, divided roughly into scientific eras—times within which the nature of scientific investigation had a unique character. Whatever the nature of the era, scientific progress has pushed forward with slow, churning activity, then leaped ahead with sudden insights. This collection of stories will take us on a tour of human discovery, an expedition through a set of unique moments of concentrated experience and chance occurrences that have built upon each other to create our understanding of the world.

Mythic Moments: Apocryphal Apples

Scientific discovery did not wait for “science.” Curiosity has been a human trait since there have been humans. The anecdotes in this section are apocryphal, of dubious authorship and questionable authenticity. Doesn’t mean they aren’t true, just that it would be difficult to prove their truth. All the stories in this section come before 1800, before a time when there were any “scientists.” Science in this era was just another philosophical discipline, and the people who tried to broaden and deepen our understanding of our world were called “natural philosophers.” Their work would help define the process of science. As in every other time of history, accidents of fate played a role in their discoveries.

The Age of Reason, the Emergence of Mystery

Between 1800 and 1900 the nature of scientific investigation was changing. Many “basic” discoveries had been made; so someone who wanted to push the frontiers of knowledge needed to become at least somewhat specialized. The “natural philosopher” was disappearing, to be replaced by the “scientist.” This century also saw increasing awareness that science was important for human progress. The new emphasis placed on science and the new structures established to streamline scientific education didn’t change the basic model for scientific investigation. Reduced to its basics, the process begins with an idea about how the world works, then continues with an experiment to test if the idea is correct. In this environment where there was increasing belief that the world was understood, every surprising result served as a reminder that increasing knowledge leads to greater mystery. Here are stories of mysteries solved.

Living by the Rules, Thinking Outside the Box

In the years from 1900 to 1940 the trend towards scientific specialization was continuing. The idea of a truly lone scientist had nearly always been as much myth as reality. Even Newton, the perfect example of a solitary genius, acknowledged “if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” Research was becoming more interconnected, and research projects generally involved collaboration of one sort or another. This timeframe also saw the introduction of a new type of chance discovery. After 1900 research became more targeted. Several of the stories from this time relate circumstances where researchers were on a quest for something specific when they found something quite different from what they were searching for. In a way, these discoveries are all the more remarkable for that. After all, these people had a job to do, but they ignored it—or perhaps just stretched the definition of their task—to pursue a chance observation to its logical conclusion.

Complex Connections: Serendipity Across Disciplines

The trend in science is like the trend in any discipline: the more that is already known, the harder it is to move into territory no one else has discovered. Hand-in-hand with this is ever-increasing specialization. After 1940 the specialization became even more intense. In this era, it became reasonable to be called not just a scientist, not just a chemist, but an organometallic chemist. But the world doesn’t always divide itself into the clever categories that we humans devise. This had two implications for accidental discovery. First, at least one person needed to be prepared enough to be confident that the accidental discovery was worth pursuing. Second, the person who felt that a chance observation was significant needed to convince other members of the team of that importance. For those chance opportunities to turn into accidental discoveries, preparation and desire were more important than ever.

The Corporate Model: Chance in Big Science

Late twentieth century scientific research—whether in industry, the public sector, or academia—increasingly began to follow the corporate model. In the corporate model, research has a specific goal. Goal-oriented research is almost the antithesis of discovery-driven science. Within this framework, chance still plays a big role, but recognizing and acting upon chance observations requires scientists to demonstrate personal commitment and courage. If individual desire isn’t strong enough, opportunity will not lead to discovery. The examples in this chapter demonstrate that the quest to understand creates strong desire: chance discovery remains alive.

Living with Chance: Preparation and Desire

Throughout the centuries chance observations or events have triggered scientific discovery and technical innovations. The scientists who benefitted from serendipity were not "lucky," except in the sense that preparation and focussed desire create "luck." So what role will chance events play in the future of scientific discovery?

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