Serendipity, Sciences Well-Guarded Secret
But only in you if you want me . . .
All things are meaningless accidents, works of chance
unless your marveling gaze,
as it probes, connects and orders,
makes them divine . . .
Wilhelm Willms, God Speaks1
Contemplating the genesis of the great medical breakthroughs of the last
century, most people picture brilliant, well-trained scientists diligently
pursuing a predetermined goal laboriously experimenting with first this
substance and then that substance, progressing step by step to a Eureka!
moment when the sought-after cure is at last found. There in the minds eye is
Marie Curie stirring a vat of pitchblende over many years to recover minute
amounts of radium, or Paul Ehrlich testing one arsenical compound after another
until he finds Salvarsan, the magic bullet against syphilis, on his 606th
attempt. In the contemporary setting, one looks to what might be called Big
Science. Surely, we imagine, in the halls of ivy-draped universities and the
gleaming labs of giant pharmaceutical companies, teams of researchers in smart
white coats are working in harmony to cure cancer, banish the common cold, or
otherwise produce the Next Big Thing in medicine.
For its own reasons, the medical establishment is happy to perpetuate these largely false images. By tradition and protocol, it presents science as a set of facts and strong beliefs that, like the Ten Commandments, have been set in stone by a distant all-knowing authority and, if followed, will lead inevitably through a linear process to the desired results. Furthermore, it portrays the history of scientific advances as a sequence of events that have led to more-or-less direct progress.
The reality is different. Progress has resulted only after many false starts and despite widespread misconceptions held over long periods of time. A large number of significant discoveries in medicine arose, and entirely new domains of knowledge and practice were opened up, not as a result of painstaking experimentation but rather from chance and even outright error. This is true for many of the common drugs and procedures that we rely on today, notably many antibiotics, anesthetics, chemotherapy drugs, anticoagulant drugs, and antidepressants.
Consider the following examples, all typical of how things happen in medical research:
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.
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