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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
    Paperback:
    Dec 2008, 408 pages

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Analogical thinking has certainly been a cornerstone of science. The seventeenth-century English physiologist William Harvey compared the heart to a pump. The physicists Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr pictured the atom as a tiny solar system. “Every concept we have,” writes the cognitive scientist Douglas R. Hofstadter, “is essentially nothing but a tightly packaged bundle of analogies.”

DDrawing analogies is one part of the creative discovery process, but an equally important one is seeing things that don’t quite make sense. Thomas Kuhn introduced the idea that revolutions in science arise from the recognition of anomalies. Kuhn observed that the accumulation of anomalies — findings that cannot be assimilated into an accepted scientific framework, tradition, or paradigm — paves the way for scientific revolution. A single anomalous observation may stimulate an initial inquiry, but most productive to an alert mind is a special sort of anomaly, one that clearly falls into a class of anomalies. Resolving just one can provide insight into a whole category of more complicated ones. For example, the era of cancer chemotherapy was initiated by the recognition of never-before-seen symptoms in sailors saturated for long periods with liquid mustard gas during a military disaster in World War II. From this came the development of alkylating chemical agents, followed by a series of different categories of anticancer drugs.

In the early 1950s Nathan Kline, a psychiatrist at Rockland State Hospital in Orangeburg, New York, exploited an anomalous reaction in patients receiving the drug reserpine for hypertension. He noticed that it tranquilized agitated, restless patients. It was later shown that reserpine affected the levels of serotonin, dopamine, and adrenaline in the brain. This was truly a “Eureka!” finding because it steered psychiatry onto a whole new path that focused on brain chemistry. Kline’s pioneer efforts in introducing the use of tranquilizers to the practice of psychiatry in the United States was followed by the development of a host of psychoactive drugs influencing the brain’s neurotransmitters, culminating in today’s multibillion-dollar mood-altering-drug industry. Creative thinkers tend to take analogies and anomalies to higher levels. They have a gift for seeing similar differences and different similarities — phrases coined by the British theoretical physicist David Bohm. True creation, Bohm argues, relies upon perceiving a new fundamental set of similar differences that constitutes a genuinely new order.27 Indeed, it is the recognition of anomalies, discrepancies, inconsistencies, and exceptions that often leads to the uncovering of a truth, perhaps one of greater magnitude than the one originally pursued. Writing of Charles Darwin, his son said: “Everybody notices as a fact an exception when it is striking and frequent, but he had a special instinct for arresting an exception. A point apparently slight and unconnected with his present work is passed over by many a man almost unconsciously with some half-considered explanation, which is in fact no explanation. It was just those things that he seized on to make a start from.”

The ideal scientific mind comfortably incorporates unanticipated factors into an established body of work or, more likely, follows it in completely new directions. Such a mind handles error, inconsistencies, and accidents in a characteristic way that represents a special mark of creativity. In other words, the open mind embraces serendipity and converts a stumbling block into a stepping-stone. As Winston Churchill whimsically observed, “Men occasionally stumble across the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened.”

When Insight Strikes
A perceptive breakthrough may be likened to grasping the “hidden” figure in a Gestalt diagram. In the 1950s Rosalyn Yalow, a biophysicist, and Solomon Berson, a physician, at the Bronx VA Hospital began using radioisotopes — radioactive forms of chemical elements — to study diseases. At that time, it was believed that the high levels of sugar in the blood of adult diabetics were due to insulin deficiency. Some researchers hypothesized that it was probably destroyed by a liver enzyme once it entered the bloodstream.

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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