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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  • A similar circumstance proved very beneficial to the neurobiologist David Anderson of the California Institute of Technology, who publicly announced his serendipitous breakthrough in the New York Times in July 2001. Researching neural stem cells, the cells that build the nervous system in the developing embryo, Anderson discovered the “magic fertilizer” that allowed some of them to bloom into neurons, sprouting axons and dendrites: “It was a very boring compound that we used to coat the plastic bottom of the Petri dish in order to afford the cells a stickier platform to which to attach. Never would we have predicted that such a prosaic change could exert such a powerful effect. Yet it turned out to be the key that unlocked the hidden neuronal potential of these stem cells.”
  • An unanticipated variable seriously hampered the efforts of biochemist Edward Kendall to isolate the thyroid hormone thyroxine, which partly controls the rate of the body’s metabolism. After four years of meticulous work on the gland, he finally extracted crystals of the thyroid hormone on Christmas morning 1914 at the Mayo Foundation in Rochester, Minnesota. But when he moved to expand production, Kendall could no longer recover active material. Only after fourteen months of futile efforts was he able to trace the cause of this setback to the decomposition of the hormone by the use of large galvanized metal tanks in which the extraction from the gland was being done. The iron and copper in the metal tanks rendered the crystals ineffective. From then on, he used enamel vessels. By 1917, Kendall had collected about seven grams of crystals and was able to start clinical studies.
  • The Normal versus the Revolutionary
    In his highly influential 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn contributed an idea that changed how we see the history of science.6 Kuhn makes a distinction between “normal” and “revolutionary” science. In “normal” science, investigators work within current paradigms and apply accumulated knowledge to clearly defined problems. Guided by conventional wisdom, they tackle problems within the boundaries of the established framework of beliefs and approaches. They attempt to fit things into a pattern. This approach occupies virtually all working researchers. Such efforts, according to Nobel laureate Howard Florey, “add small points to what will eventually become a splendid picture much in the same way that the Pointillistes built up their extremely beautiful canvasses.”

    Kuhn portrays such scientists as intolerant of dissenters and preoccupied with what he dismissively refers to as puzzle-solving. Nonetheless, a period of normal science is an essential phase of scientific progress. However, it is “revolutionary” science that brings creative leaps. Minds break with the conventional to see the world anew. How is this accomplished? The surprising answer may be “blindly”! Systematic research and happenstance are not mutually exclusive; rather they complement each other. Each leads nowhere without the other.

    According to this view, chance is to scientific discovery as blind genetic mutation and natural selection are to biological evolution. The appearance of a variation is due not to some insight or foresight but rather to happenstance. In groping blindly for the “truth,” scientists sometimes accidentally stumble upon an understanding that is ultimately selected to survive in preference to an older, poorer one.

    As explained by Israeli philosophers of science Aharon Kantorovich and Yuval Ne’eman, “Blind discovery is a necessary condition for the scientific revolution; since the scientist is in general ‘imprisoned’ within the prevailing paradigm or world picture, he would not intentionally try to go beyond the boundaries of what is considered true or plausible. And even if he is aware of the limitations of the scientific world picture and desires to transcend it, he does not have a clue how to do it.”

    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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