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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An anecdote about Max Planck, the Nobel Prize–winning physicist, hammers home this reality. When a graduate student approached him for a topic of research for his Ph.D. thesis, asking him for a problem he could solve, Planck reportedly scoffed: “If there was a problem I knew could be solved, I would solve it myself!”

Induction and deduction only extend existing knowledge. A radically new conceptual system cannot be constructed by deduction. Rational thought can be applied only to what is known. All new ideas are generated with an irrational element in that there is no way to predict them. As Robert Root-Bernstein, physiology professor and author of Discovering, observed, “We invent by intention; we discover by surprise.”9 In other words, accidents will happen, and it’s a blessing for us that they do.

The Receptive Scientific Mind
“Accident” is not really the best word to describe such fortuitous discoveries. Accident implies mindlessness. Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the American continent was pure accident — he was looking for something else (the Orient) and stumbled upon this, and never knew, not even on his dying day, that he had discovered a new continent. A better name for the phenomenon we will be looking at in the pages to follow is “serendipity,” a word that came into the English language in 1754 by way of the writer Horace Walpole. The key point of the phenomenon of serendipity is illustrated in Walpole’s telling of an ancient Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip (set in the land of Serendip, now known as Sri Lanka): “As their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

Accidents and sagacity. Sagacity — defined as penetrating intelligence, keen perception, and sound judgment — is essential to serendipity. The men and women who seized on lucky accidents that happened to them were anything but mindless. In fact, their minds typically had special qualities that enabled them to break out of established paradigms, imagine new possibilities, and see that they had found a solution, often to some problem other than the one they were working on. Accidental discoveries would be nothing without keen, creative minds knowing what to do with them.

The term “serendipity” reached modern science by way of physiologist Walter B. Cannon, who introduced it to Americans in his 1945 book The Way of an Investigator.11 Cannon thought the ability to seize on serendipity was the mark of a major scientist. The word is now loosely applied in the popular media to cover such circumstances as luck, coincidence, or a fortunate turn of events. This sadly distorts it. Serendipity means the attainment or discovery of something valuable that was not sought, the unexpected observation seized upon and turned to advantage by the prepared mind. The key factor of sagacity has been lost. Chance alone does not bring about discoveries. Chance with judgment can.

Serendipity implies chance only insofar as Louis Pasteur’s famous dictum indicates: “In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” Salvador Luria, a Nobel laureate in medicine, deemed it “the chance observation falling on the receptive eye.” I have the answer. What is the question? Turning an observation inside out, seeking the problem that fits the answer, is the essence of creative discovery. Such circumstances lead the astute investigator to solutions in search of problems and beyond established points of view.

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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