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Editorial: The path of science runs not smoothly

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2005. Editorial: The path of science runs not smoothly. the Exchange 12(1):2–4.

In one stereotypical view of the scientific method, researchers read all the literature related to a particular research problem, thereby gaining a complete understanding of what is known and what remains unknown. They then carefully design an experiment intended to fill in the gaps in the existing knowledge or to build upon existing knowledge and extend its scope. Since the universe is mechanistic and proceeds by known and increasingly well-understood laws, no surprises should arise: the experiment may generate a positive or negative result, but that result will surely fall within a comfortingly known range of possibilities. In this stereotype, science proceeds slowly and methodically, relentlessly pushing back the borders of ignorance and casting an increasing circle of light into the universe's darker corners.

Fortunately, the universe we live in is much more interesting than that.

The problem with this stereotype is that it ignores is how often science proceeds in an entirely different manner—one in which chance and surprise and serendipity sometimes play a more important role than sheer force of logic in the journey towards understanding. Here are a few examples, ranging from the sublime to the considerably less so:

Sour grapes

It's quite likely that fermentation, the process by which microorganisms (yeasts in particular) convert plant sugars into alcohol, was discovered entirely by accident. If you leave a pitcher of fruit juice open to the atmosphere, all kinds of unpleasant things will fall into it—if, as was often the case before pasteurization, they weren't already present in the drink. Some of these things will be vagabond yeast cells floating carefree and ubiquitous through the air. When they land in the drink, they fall upon its sugars with shrill microbial cries of delight and immediately set about producing a primitive yet oddly satisfying form of beverage.

Some early chemical engineer had the wit to wonder how the drink had changed in such a pleasant manner—and rather than simply pouring out the ruined drink and solving the problem of how to keep fruit juice pure, went on to research how to produce an ever-finer wine. Something similar undoubtedly occurred with wet wheat and barley. It's fun to speculate that while in vino veritas became the battle cry of the drunken philosopher, it was the search for the perfect beer that drove the evolution of many early forms of chemistry—just as it now inspires the creative efforts of more modern engineers.

Bad bread and sick cows

Speaking of errant microorganisms, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin quite by chance when a bacterial culture dish accidentally exposed to the atmosphere allowed entry to a few spores from a simple bread mold (Penicillium). Immediately setting about making themselves at home, these spores germinated into fungal hyphae that secreted a chemical compound that killed the surrounding bacteria, leaving a clear patch in an otherwise cloudy mess of bacteria. We know this compound today as "penicillin". Had Fleming simply discarded the culture dish as having been "spoiled" by the adventitious mold—a perfectly reasonable decision, given that his goal was to culture the bacteria while seeking substances capable of killing them—the discovery of modern antibiotics might have been delayed by decades.

Similarly, we might still be living with the terrible threat of smallpox and many other diseases if a cattle breeder, Benjamin Jesty, hadn't noticed that milkmaids exposed to cowpox truly were immune to the greater scourge of smallpox—something that until that time had been considered nothing more than an old wife's tale. (It often pays to listen to those old wives.) Edward Jenner took this one step further and actually inoculated a child with cowpox and subsequently with smallpox. The child survived, and the science of "vaccination" was born. Etymological note: This word comes from the Latin root vacce—cow—in honor of the humble source of the discovery.

Vulcanized rubber

The pollution-belching cars most of us now own are difficult to imagine without rubber tires; after all, the traditional wheeled carriage or wagon rode on solid wooden or iron wheels that made travel painful in the extreme, since useful springs or shock absorbers were rare. These wheels were also fragile, and could not sustain high speeds. It seemed likely that rubber, brought back to Europe around the time of Columbus's return from the New World, would eventually prove to be a useful solution to this problem, since the substance had excellent shock-absorbing properties. Yet native rubber proved to be an entirely unsuitable material; it's far too soft and fragile to create useful tires.

Charles Goodyear (certainly a familiar family name!) solved the problem quite accidentally while he was experimenting with mixtures of native rubber and sulfur in an attempt to improve native rubber. While mixing a rubber–sulfur solution in a pot atop his stove, he carelessly spilled some onto a hot skillet. The resulting "vulcanized" rubber proved strong and durable, and soon revolutionized transportation, among other things. Another etymological note: much though it might be tempting to assume that this name derives from Gene Roddenberry's planet of hyperlogical logical positivists—the stereotype of a scientist if ever there were—Vulcan is actually the Roman god of fire and the forge.

Soap that floats

If, like me, you're one of the modern cadre of showerers who shuns the bathtub for your ablutions, you may not be aware that Ivory soap, that most iconic of brands, floats in water. This isn't particularly useful in the shower, but if you've ever lost a bar of soap under two feet of murky bathwater, you'd presumably be grateful for this unusual property. Though it's tempting to hypothesize that floating soap was the result of a careful audience analysis, those of us who work with development managers know how unlikely this is. In fact, floating soap resulted from nothing more than a simple industrial accident. Some anonymous factory worker inadvertently left the mixing machine turned on overnight, and the ensuing overnight whipping incorporated too much air into the batch of soap. The low-density result proved insufficiently dense to sink. Rather than discarding the "spoiled" batch of soap, Procter and Gamble realized they could turn a mistake into a marketing triumph and the rest, as they say, is history. (More than a century of history, in fact.)

Whether whipped butter, whipped cream, whipped latté, and other frothy items float in bathwater is an experiment I leave to other, more adventurous researchers.

An indifferent adhesive

Spencer Silver had been experimenting with new formulations for strong adhesives while working for 3M, and among his various batches of glue, found one that worked just about well enough to hold two pieces of paper together so long as neither piece was strongly motivated to go elsewhere. A clear failure given his project objectives, but since no experimental result is ever useless to the true researcher, Silver mentioned his results to colleagues, filed the results, and moved on to bigger and better things. So it was that several years later, a fellow 3M researcher and choir member named Arthur Fry found himself increasingly frustrated in his choral efforts: he kept losing his place in his hymnal, and wished for a secure means of marking his place. Suddenly, inspiration struck, and Fry recalled Silver's adhesive and wondered whether it might solve his pagination problems. Indeed it did, and thus was born the Post-it note.

Serendipity and stereotype

What each of these anecdotes has in common is the fact that a seeming failure or an unexpected result opened the eyes of an open-minded researcher to entirely new vistas of discovery—some frivolous, as in the case of whipped soap, and some world-altering, as in the case of antibiotics and vaccines. As scientific communicators, we're somewhat less likely than our researcher and engineer colleagues to come up with such serendipitous discoveries. Yet the lesson of these anecdotes remains clear: that stereotypes can blind us to the more interesting possibilities that lie all around us, waiting for a keen mind to discover.

What communications stereotypes have we accepted without question? What might we discover by going beyond those stereotypes? Which of our failures contain the seeds of future greatness? Inquiring newsletter editors want to know!

My essays on scientific communication have now been collected in the following book:

Hart, G. 2011. Exchanges: 10 years of essays on scientific communication. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Que. Printed version, 242 p.; eBook in PDF format, 327 p.

©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved