Happy Accidents shows that
many of the great medical discoveries of the 20th
century were made serendipitously. A few of the many
examples Meyers explores will be familiar, but most
will be a surprise to the majority of readers.
Apparently, the reason that so many of these "happy accidents" are unknown to us is because scientists often cover up the serendipitous nature of their discoveries because, within the scientific community, there is a something of a stigma attached to chance discovery, because it can be misconstrued as being pure luck. Thus many published papers omit the blind alleys, wrong ideas and creative leaps that went into the eventual discovery, and instead present the findings as a smooth, logical process devoid of stumbling blocks. Far from undermining the great achievements of scientists such as Pasteur, Fleming and Feynman, Happy Accidents illustrates that it takes a very keen mind to recognize an accidental discovery for what it is.
Winston Churchill once said "Men occasionally stumble across the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing has happened." Meyers points out that serendipity happens when a "happy accident" is observed by a person who has the ability to recognize the event as notable, and is sufficiently intrigued to want to unravel its mystery and find a useful application for it. In other words, when chance meets judgment.
Meyers argues that the creative impulse in scientific research is being kept unnecessarily in check by an overly regimented education system, giant pharmaceutical companies, peer review boards, and granting agencies that require detailed proposals that then have to be followed to the letter.
In Dog Years, Mark Doty makes reference to an enlightened veterinarian school where students close to completing their medical studies spend a semester reading books that emphasize the relationship between animals and man because, after years spent with their noses in text books, it can be difficult to remember why they wanted to become vets in the first place. For similar reasons it would behoove medical students, especially those who intend to go into research, to read Happy Accidents before they graduate.
That is not to say that Happy Accidents is only for the medical specialists among us - far from it. Morton Meyers' anecdote-rich writing style is totally accessible to the layman; not only providing an enlightening read but leaving the reader with a wealth of bite-sized "did you know" facts to share on any occasion when the subject of health and medicine comes up which, for most of us, is an increasingly popular topic as we get inexorably closer to shuffling off our mortal coil!
You'll find an extensive (and exclusive) excerpt of the introduction from Happy Accidents, complete with illustrations, at BookBrowse.
"Induction and deduction only extend existing knowledge ..... 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." - Morton A Meyers.
This review was originally published in April 2007, and has been updated for the December 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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