On the Primordial Role of Chance in Science
A project explores incidents of luck in many of humankind’s most important scientific discoveries.
“Chance favors only the prepared mind,” scientist Louis Pasteur once asserted. And it’s that very phenomenon, luck, which plays such a prominent role in our private lives, as it does in our collective lives, and in questions both historical and political. In the scientific universe, in many of the most important findings, this has been equally true. It was the case in the curious story of the discovery of penicillin, and in the discovery of X-rays.
Although chance can’t be studied in a rigorously scientific way, circumstantial evidence of the importance of the phenomenon within advances in human science and technology drives many investors, both public and private, to bet tremendous amounts of money every year on scientific research around the world.
As a concept, chance and luck occur in science in a non-quantifiable but in rather a philosophical or conceptual way. Recently, the European Research Council allocated 1.4 million euros to scientist and social researcher, Ohid Yaqub, to gather evidence on the role of chance in scientific discoveries. It was a singular investment that’s yielded very interesting results.
Yaqub developed a method for conducting the research by defining “chance” in science as something that doesn’t result only from “happy accidents.” Rather, he defined four types of chance. The first includes chance discoveries that arise from research in a specific field of science, and which then result in a discovery in another field (as when, in 1943, research on the causes of a pepper gas explosion led to the idea of using chemotherapy to treat cancer). A second type includes those discoveries which result from investigations that have no defined purpose and yet reach successful conclusions (as when Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays while playing with a cathode ray tube). There are also discoveries that result from the investigation of a specific phenomenon, and whose conclusions come through unplanned methods (such as was the case with the vulcanization of rubber, which resulted when Charles Goodyear accidentally checked the effects of heat on rubber). Finally, some scientific discoveries come in response to needs or questions that arise later in time (safety glass, for example, now used in auto windshields, was first observed in a laboratory flask that failed to break when it fell).
Having made these classifications, Yaqub pored through archives and reviewed hundreds of cases of accidental scientific discoveries. In every case, he found certain elements which were repeated and factors which are somehow connected to these kinds of events, such as errors, an ability to make astute observations, and a certain degree of controlled disorder which allows such unexpected events to occur, and whose causes can then be traced. Finally, the scientist found that in most cases there was collaborative work involving networks of people.
Working at the University of Sussex in the UK, Yaqub’s experiment is ongoing, and he hopes that his method of classification will allow us to know more about the frequency of these kinds of incidents and to find a clearer understanding of their nature and meaning. Yaqub’s studies may result in better information for investors and in the ability of scientists around the world to create the right conditions for such incidents to occur.
Perhaps what makes the study most fascinating is not only the scientific possibilities opened up, but the extraordinary union of two such seemingly disparate worlds: the numerical, quantifiable aspect of science, with the seemingly inexplicable magic of chance.
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