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

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Happy Accidents

Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs

by Morton Meyers M.D.

Happy Accidents
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2007, 408 pages
    Dec 2008, 408 pages

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Those instances of rare and belated admissions underscore the deliberate omission of the creative act that originated the medical discovery. The general scientific paper simply does not accurately reflect the way the work was actually done.

At times, one can detect an inchoate longing among scientists themselves for a forum for recounting the distractions, obstructions, stumblings, and stepping-stones in the process. Richard Feynman, the plainspoken physicist, affirms in his 1966 Nobel lecture: We have a habit in writing articles published in scientific journals to make the work as finished as possible, to cover up all the tracks, to not worry about the blind alleys or describe how you had the wrong idea first, and so on. So there isn’t any place to publish, in a dignified manner, what you actually did in order to get to do the work.

It is not hard to understand why most scientists remain circumspect. Embarrassment and fear of loss of stature may inhibit them from making full disclosure. They do not wish to jeopardize their chances to raise funds, win grants, earn publication, and advance their careers. It is unsettling for scientists to have to admit that so many discoveries came about purely by accident.

Reflecting on nonlogical factors in research, Rothstein concluded that “there is no body of literature to which one can turn . . . that reveals or collates the factor of chance and serendipity in research.”  It is precisely this complaint that this book attempts to rectify.

A New Scientific Method?
“Unless you expect the unexpected,” warned the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “you will never find truth, for it is hard to discover and hard to attain.”

Can a serendipitous discovery be predicted? Of course not. We cannot forecast that something — especially something valuable — will be found without specifically being sought. Does randomness play a role? Although chance implies unpredictability, it does not mean total randomness. In a random occurrence, there is complete absence of any explanation or cause. Randomness is generally seen as incompatible with creativity, as improbable as the writing of Hamlet by the legendary band of monkeys with typewriters in the basement of the British Museum.

Three things are certain about discovery: Discovery is unpredictable. Discovery requires serendipity. Discovery is a creative act. In the words of Peter Medawar:

What we want to know about the science of the future is the content and character of future scientific theories and ideas. Unfortunately, it is impossible to predict new ideas — the ideas people are going to have in ten years’ or ten minutes’ time — and we are caught in a logical paradox the moment we try to do so. For to predict an idea is to have an idea, and if we have an idea it can no longer be the subject of a prediction.

Yet, despite the examples given, and all that follow, medical research stubbornly continues to assume that new drugs and other advances will follow exclusively from a predetermined research path. Many, in fact, will. Others, if history is any indication, will not. They will come not from a committee or a research team but rather from an individual, a maverick who views a problem with fresh eyes. Serendipity will strike and be seized upon by a well-trained scientist or clinician who also dares to rely upon intuition, imagination, and creativity.

Unbound by traditional theory and willing to suspend the usual clinical set of beliefs, this outsider will persevere and lead the way to a dazzling breakthrough. Eventually, once the breakthrough becomes part of accepted medical wisdom, the insiders will pretend that the outsider was one of them all along.

So the great secret of science is how much of what is sought is not actually found, and how much of what has been found was not specifically sought. Serendipity matters, and it benefits us greatly to understand the true dynamics of the discovery process for many reasons: Because we are affected so directly by medical advances. Because directed research — in contrast to independent, curiosity-driven research that liberates serendipity — is often costly and unproductive. Because we need to be sound in our judgment of the allocation of funding and resources. Because profound benefits and consequences to society may be at stake. And — perhaps an equally compelling reason — because we thrill to hear and understand the many fascinating stories that lie at the intersection of science, creativity, and serendipity.

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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