Serendipity, Discovery,

and the Nobel Prizes in Science

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

April 20,1998

Honors 182, 08 Professors Brau and Shepherd

 

 

The word serendipity was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole in a letter to his friend Sir Horace Mann. Walpole referred to a fairly tale about The Three Princes of Serendip, "who were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of", to describe some of his own accidental discoveries. In science, the faculty of making unexpected discoveries during the course of scientific investigation is also termed serendipity (Kohn, 1). Thus, the history of science is a chronicle of serendipitous discoveries.

Albert Szent-Gyorgyi said "To make a discovery means to see what everyone has seen, but to think something special about it. Discovery often means simply the uncovering of something which has been there, but was hidden from the eye by the blinkers of habit," (Kohn, 1). Many discoveries awarded Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, and Physiology or Medicine, ranging from x-rays to penicillin to insulin, were the result of serendipity. On the contrary, there are numerous examples of scientists who failed and missed opportunities to make Nobel Prize-worthy discoveries. However, one thing is certain; although it is common knowledge that chance often is a factor in making a discovery., the magnitude of its importance is seldom realized and the significance of its role has not been fully appreciated or understood (Kohn, 3). A question logically follows; what personal qualities, characteristics, and strengths have allowed some scientists to make serendipitous discoveries leading to Nobel Prizes whereas others had the opportunity to make such a discovery and did not? Examination of Roentgen's discovery of x-rays, Fleming's discovery of penicillin, Waksman's "blindness" to his own discoveries, and Banting's discovery of insulin provide insight into the role of serendipity in the Nobel Prizes in science.

"In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind," (Roberts, 10). Indeed, Pasteur's statement is an axiom of scientific research. A scientist with a "prepared mind" has not only in-depth knowledge but the ability to make astute observations about unexpected phenomena by maintaining attention to details outside the research question being studied. Therefore, a prepared mind is one unifying characteristic of Nobel Prize-winning scientists who made serendipitous discoveries.

Wilhelm Roentgen exemplifies the concept of the prepared mind. Roentgen was awarded the first Nobel Prize in Physics (1901) for his discovery of x-rays. Crookes tubes, consisting of a negatively charged cathode embedded in an evacuated glass tube, were developed in 1875 and used to study radiation and luminescence. By placing a thin aluminum window at the end of the tube, Philipp Lenard later observed that cathode rays passed several centimeters outside the tube and could be detected by the light they produced on a phosphorescent screen. In 1895, Roentgen repeated known experiments with cathode rays. However, during a new experiment, Roentgen covered a Crookes tube with black cardboard to determine if cathode rays could be detected without the aluminum window. Upon energizing the tube, he observed a weak glow in the completely darkened room on a fluorescent screen more than a meter from the tube. Roentgen soon realized that the tube was producing a new form of invisible radiation, not cathode rays, which caused the fluorescent crystals to glow. Within several weeks, he had described most of the qualitative properties of x-rays, most importantly, that they could be used to record skeletal images on photographic film.

As one of his colleagues observed, "Roentgen was a genius of interpretation of phenomena, had a keen sense of observation, and an inexhaustible thoroughness of critical judgment," (Nitske, 4). The discovery of x-rays demonstrates the important role of a prepared mind in the observation of chance happenings. Additionally, several scientists who missed the opportunity to discover x-rays provide further support that a prepared mind is a defining characteristic of Nobel Prize-winning scientists who made accidental discoveries.

For example, William Crookes noticed that some photographic plates became fogged while running experiments with Crookes tubes but did no further investigation. Philipp Lenard noticed a paper coated with platinum cyanide glowing several centimeters outside the aluminum window and, like Crookes, did not follow up his observation. A.W. Goodspeed and W.N. Jennings also missed the discovery of x-rays when they noticed a blackening of their photographic plates but did no additional experimentation (Kohn, 16). All of these scientists already had something in mind which they were looking for, and consequently were not led by their experiments. Furthermore, these failures suggest that scientists who miss opportunities for discovery either lacked the prepared mind or did not gauge the importance of their unexpected results.

This idea leads to the second unifying characteristic of serendipitous discoveries made by Nobel scientists. "It is not only the discoverer's ability to observe what chance has presented to him. He has to be able to judge the importance of the observation, to have not only the prepared mind, but the flexible mind," (Kohn, 2). In his discovery of x-rays, Roentgen not only observed the glowing screen but realized that a new form of radiation was responsible for the unexpected result. Thus, the flexible mind is an extension of the prepared mind - it requires the ability to make keen observations and, if necessary, the ability to shift paradigms, or change the way of thinking about a problem in order to explain an observation and understand its importance. Possession of a flexible mind has contributed to serendipitous discoveries and its absence has caused some scientists to miss important opportunities.

Perhaps the most well-known serendipitous discovery in science is Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin, launching the beginning of the antibiotic era. However, the importance of a flexible mind in discovery may have postponed the discovery over twenty years. In the early 1900's, Professor M'Fadyean at the Royal Veterinary College urged bacteriology students to keep inoculated cultures covered (Wainwright, 102):

 

This description is a powerful example of the importance of a flexible mind in understanding the significance of a discovery.

Thus, many years passed until chance met with the mind of bacteriologist Alexander Fleming. Fleming was awarded half of the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of penicillin, however, the story begins more than twenty years prior to the prize. "In 1922 Fleming serendipitously discovered an antibiotic that killed bacteria but not white blood cells," (Roberts, 160). While suffering from a cold, Fleming cultured his own nasal secretions. A tear from his eye fell into the dish, and the next day he astutely observed a clear spot where the tear had fallen. Fleming quickly concluded that a substance in the tear lysed (destroyed) the bacteria and was harmless to human tissue. He name the antibiotic lysozyme.

In the summer of 1928, Fleming was researching influenza. During summer vacation, Fleming left a stack of inoculated plates uncovered on a lab bench for a month. A colleague came to inquire about his research, and upon examining a culture plate that had been discarded, Fleming noticed an unusually clear area. Over the holiday, a bit of mold had contaminated the uncovered dish. "Remembering his experience with lysozyme, Fleming concluded that the mold was producing a substance deadly to the staphylococcus bacteria on the culture plate," (Roberts, 161). Fleming isolated and identified the mold and named the antibiotic it produced penicillin.

Although Fleming's efforts to isolate and concentrate penicillin were unsuccessful, he was convinced of its potential as a therapeutic agent. Fleming's prepared and flexible mind illustrate two distinguishing characteristics of Nobel Prize-winning scientists. He epitomized the keen observational skills of the prepared mind, and recalling on past experience demonstrated the ability to grasp the importance of his chance observation, unlike M'Fadyean two decades earlier.

In addition to the absence of a prepared and flexible mind, missed opportunities for discovery are also the result of the scientist's preoccupations, bias, and goals (Kohn, 1). As physicist Joseph Henry said, "The seeds of great discoveries are constantly floating around us, but they only take root in minds well prepared to receive them," (Kohn, 1). One such example of a scientist whose preoccupations and goals resulted in missed opportunities is Selman Waksman. Although Waksman was the recipient of the 1952 Nobel Prize for the discovery of streptomycin, it might be said that he was blind to some of his own discoveries.

Studying soil microbes, Waksman's preoccupations resulted in repeated missed opportunities to discover the antibiotic potential of some of these organisms. For example, in 1935 when a graduate student noticed that the presence of a soil microbe inhibited the growth of tuberde bacilli, Waksman thought the lead was not worth pursuing and that the observations suggested no practical application for the treatment of tuberculosis. He stated, "My major interest at the time was the subiect of organic matter decomposition,~ (Kohn, 104).

Although Waksman later made an exhaustive search in the late thirties for antibiotic sources in soil organisms, his "blindness" to discovery continued. In 1942, Waksman's son proposed a project to his father to isolate antibiotic-producing fungi and test their effect against tuberde bacillus. Waksman responded, "The time has not come yet. We are not quite prepared to undertake this problem," (Kohn, 105). Finally, after the discovery of streptomycin in 1944, Waksman mentioned its effectiveness against tuberculosis in only one publication near the bottom of a table of results. "The discovery had been made, but was not discovered by the discoverers themselves," (Kohn, 105). Thus, despite Waksman's controversial Nobel Prize, his inability to shift paradigms is

an example of how preoccupations and a narrowly-focused attention can lead to missed opportunities.

The importance of the prepared and flexible mind have been emphasized in the observation of chance happenings and serendipitous discoveries. However, a third quality characterizes Nobel Prize-winning scientists and their accidental discoveries; perserverence and dedication to science for science's sake. "Accidents do not happen to scientists who trust that chance will provide them with inspiration," (Kohn, 2). One such example is Frederick Banting, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1923 for the discovery of insulin. Banting's determination, in light of other unsuccessful scientists, exemplifies this quality.

The road to the discovery of insulin beings with a serendipitous observation. In 1889, Joseph von Mering and Oscar Minkowski was noted flies swarming around the urine from a dog. The dog's urine was tested and a high concentration of sugar (a sign of diabetes) was found. The scientists subsequently determined a connection between the pancreas and sugar metabolism, as well as a relationship between the lack of a pancreatic secretion and diabetes.

Many unsuccessful attempts were made in the following years to isolate the secretion. One such attempt was made by Marcel Gley in 1905. Gley prepared an extraction of the pancreatic secretion which when injected into diabetic dogs greatly decreased sugar excretion and improved symptoms of diabetes (Kohn, 151). Despite the success, the results remained unpublished for seventeen years. Gley sent the report to Paris in a sealed envelop with instructions that it not be opened until he requested. Apparently, Gley was not convinced of the validity of his results and was unable to complete his work (Kohn, 152). Thus, lack of confidence in a new idea due to fear of rejection by the scientific community emerges as another explanation of missed opportunities. Paradigms are powerful forces in which dedication and persistence are necessary to change.

In contrast to Gley, the surgeon Frederick Banting exhibited this confidence. With the help of medical student Charles Best, Banting began to work on the problem. Banting's perserverence was obvious from the onset, as it took a great deal of persuasion to even gain access to lab facilities and equipment (Kohn, 153). Although his original idea to obtain the extract was incorrect, Banting ultimately stumbled through misconception and misinterpretation to successfully produce the hormone. During the month prior to the discovery, Banting and Best continually worked on three hours of sleep a night, with "the powerful excitement of their quest being all the drug they needed to keep them on their feet," (Harris, 76).

Serendipity has played an important role in scientific discovery throughout history as well as within the Nobel century. Maurice Wilkins, who shared the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA wrote, "Scientists like to succeed. They like to get the results they hope for, but they also know that the greatest success may come from something unexpected, including failure," (Kohn, 3). Indeed, Nobel Prize-winning scientists have generally embraced the role chance played their discovery. Roentgen said "Nature often allows amazing miracles to be produced which originate from the most ordinary observations, recognized only by those who are equipped with sagacity and research acumen, and who consult experience, the teacher of everything," (Kohn, 20). Likewise, Fleming described the conditions for success as "hard work, careful observations, clean thinking, enthusiasm, and a spot of luck," (Kohn, 38).

In no way does serendipity diminish the importance of credibility of a discovery, rather chance happenings and accidental discoveries are integral to the scientific method. Nobel Prize-winning scientists whose awards were the results share three qualities: the prepared mind for observation of Fleming, the flexible mind for interpretation of Roentgen, and the passion for science of Banting. On the contrary, scientists who missed opportunities for discovery were characterized by the inability to see the importance of an unexpected result or to shift paradigms, and a lack of confidence in their ideas. Thus, serendipity is a significant factor in the scientific process of discovery and will undoubtedly make important contributions to future Nobel Prizes in science.

 

 

Works Cited

 

Blackwell, 1990.


For information about this page contact:

charles.a.brau@vanderbilt.edu

virginia.l.shepherd@vanderbilt.edu

Last updated 4/24/98.