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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Creativity is a word that most people associate with the arts. But the scientific genius that leads to great discoveries is almost always rooted in creativity, and creativity in science shares with the arts many of the same impulses. Common to both are the search for selfexpression, truth, and order; an aesthetic appreciation of the universe; a distinct viewpoint on reality; and a desire for others to see the world as the creator sees it. The novelist Vladimir Nabokov bridged the tension between the rational and the intuitive in his observation that “there is no science without fancy and no art without fact.”

Among artists, the creative urge with its sometimes fevered obsession has entered our folklore. Legend has it that one day, when Sir Walter Scott was out hunting, a sentence he had been trying to compose all morning suddenly leaped into his head. Before it could fade, he shot a crow, plucked off one of its feathers, sharpened the point, dipped it in the bird’s own blood, and recorded the sentence.  In the twentieth century, Henri Matisse, bedridden in his villa near Nice during his recovery from abdominal surgery, could not restrain himself from using a bamboo stick with chalk at its tip to draw on his bedroom wall. Among scientists, the creative urge is no less compelling.

Creative people are open-minded and flexible in the face of unusual experiences. They are alert to the oddity of unexpected juxtapositions and can recognize a possibility even when it is out of context. In his massive work The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler proposes that bold insights are produced by juxtaposing items that normally reside in different intellectual compartments, a process he terms “bisociation.” In many scientific discoveries, he asserts, “the real achievement is seeing an analogy where no one saw one before.”

In the late 1940s the biologist Aser Rothstein saw such an analogy. He was working at a unit of the then-secret Manhattan Project established at the University of Rochester. At that time, the cell membrane was basically an abstract notion, and the leading concept simply regarded diffusion across it as being of a passive nature. Rothstein was studying the toxic action of uranium salts on cells. Laboratory data were coming out well and reproducibly until, suddenly, everything went wrong. There was no progress, and no two results were the same. One day, when Rothstein walked into his lab, he noticed a box of detergent that was used in the lab to clean glassware. On the box, surrounded by a flashy red star, were the words “New Improved Dreft.”

Comparing its label to that of an old box of Dreft, Rothstein saw that the new version contained an added ingredient — a water softener. As it turned out, this softener coated glass tenaciously and chemically bound the material Rothstein was studying (uranium ions) to the surface of the glass. His creative mind then made an extraordinary leap. He wondered about a possible analogy: If there is binding on the surface of glass, could there be binding on the surface of a cell?

Seizing upon this capability of the chemical in the water softener, he went on to prove that there are binding sites on the cell surface as well. Fortune had provided him with a contaminant similar to the natural enzymes involved in transport across the cell membrane. But Fortune might have come calling in vain if not for Rothstein’s ability to draw the essential analogy. Some ten years before the cell membrane could actually be seen with the development of electron microscopy, Rothstein’s “accidental” discovery enabled him to show that it was a metabolically active structure containing enzymes critical in transport mechanisms..

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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