Excerpt from Happy Accidents by Morton Meyers M.D., plus links to reviews, author biography & more

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Happy Accidents

Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs

By Morton Meyers M.D.

Happy Accidents
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • Hardcover: Mar 2007,
    408 pages.
    Paperback: Dec 2008,
    408 pages.

    Publication Information

  • Rate this book


Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt


To their surprise, the researchers found that injected radioactive insulin remained longer — albeit uselessly — in diabetic patients who had received insulin than in people who had never received insulin before. Further studies led to an astonishing discovery: a large plasma protein, a gamma globulin antibody, was called forth as part of the body’s immune system, inactivating the insulin and keeping it in the bloodstream.

Then a “Eureka!” moment occurred that would have delighted the Gestalt psychologists of perception. Because both natural insulin and injected radioactive insulin compete for sites on the antibody molecule, the amount of the natural hormone present in a patient’s body can be measured. A curved line viewed from one side is convex but viewed from the other side is concave. As Yalow put it, “Once you saw it one way, you saw it the other way.”29 The inverse would measure the hormone itself. In this way an unexpected finding combined with a flash of insight, and the method of radioimmunoassay (RIA) was born.

The term was aptly chosen because the method used radioactively tagged substances to measure antibodies produced by the immune system. Circulating throughout the human body in solution in the blood are a multitude of hormones and other regulatory substances. They are each infinitesimal in quantity but exert profound effects. To understand bodily functions, it is necessary to determine the presence and amount of each substance.

Yalow and Berson discovered by accident a technique so sensitive that it can detect the equivalent of a sugar cube dissolved in Lake Erie. This revolutionized endocrinology and its application to virtually every system in the body. RIA is now routinely used to detect such things as hepatitis-associated antigen in the blood of patients and donors and the presence of steroids in the urine of athletes, and to ascertain blood levels of therapeutic drugs. Its discovery resulted from experiments initially designed to answer another question.

Yalow acknowledged the role of serendipity: “It was luck . . . to discover that insulin disappears more slowly from one group of patients than from another. . . . That’s what you mean by discovering something by accident. You make an observation. But it isn’t by accident that you interpret the observation correctly. That’s creativity.”31 No one would expect much science to come out of a university dining hall experience. Nevertheless, Richard Feynman, as a twenty-eight- year-old at Cornell, was eating in the school cafeteria when someone tossed a dinner plate into the air. Its two simultaneous movements caught his attention. His eyes following the red medallion insignia of Cornell on one rim of the plate, he saw not only that it was spinning but also that it was wobbling. He noticed something amiss: the spinning rotation and the wobble were not precisely synchronous. Feynman turned his characteristic playfulness and unbridled curiosity to this trivial observation:

I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate. I discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate — two to one. It came out of a complicated equation! Then I thought, “Is there some way I can see in a more fundamental way, by looking at the forces or the dynamics, why it’s two to one?”

“There was no importance to what I was doing,” he wrote later, “but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from the piddling around with the wobbling path.” That “whole business,” as he charmingly called it, was the application of his observation about the Cornell plate to the spin of electrons, known as nuclear precession, and the reformulation of quantum electrodynamics, the strange rules that govern subatomic reality.

Excerpted from Happy Accidents by Morton Meyers, M.D. Copyright © 2007 by Morton Meyers, M.D. Excerpted by permission of Arcade Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!
Member Benefits

Join Now!

Check the advantages!
Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year

    •  
    • FREE
    • MEMBER
    • Range of media reviews for each book
    • Excerpts of all featured books
    • Author bios, interviews and pronunciations
    • Browse by genre
    • Book club discussions
    • Book club advice and reading guides
    • BookBrowse reviews and "beyond the book" back-stories
    •  
    • Reviews of notable books ahead of publication
    •  
    • Free books to read and review (US Only)
    •  
    • Browse for the best books by time period, setting & theme
    •  
    • Read-alike suggestions for thousands of books and authors
    •  
    • 'My Reading List" to keep track of your books
    •  

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Shotgun Lovesongs
    Shotgun Lovesongs
    by Nickolas Butler
    Nickolas Butler's debut novel, Shotgun Lovesongs, follows five life-long friends, now in their mid-...
  • Book Jacket: Gemini
    Gemini
    by Carol Cassella
    How good is Gemini, Carol Cassella's book about a Seattle intensive care physician who becomes ...
  • Book Jacket: The Goldfinch
    The Goldfinch
    by Donna Tartt
    Winner of the 2014 Pulitzer for Fiction.

    Her canvas is vast. To frame a story about art, love and ...

First Impressions

Members read and review books ahead
of publication. See what they think
in First Impressions!

Books that
expand your
horizons.

Visitors can view a lot of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only

Find out more.

Book Discussions
Book Jacket

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
by Gabrielle Zevin

Published Apr. 2014

Join the discussion!

Who Said...

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people .... but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of ...

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Word Play

Solve this clue:

P Your O C

and be entered to win..

Books thatinspire you.Handpicked.

Books you'll stay up all night reading; books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, books that will expand your mind and inspire you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.