Some of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time were made entirely by accident. When you take a cursory glance at the history of science, it can seem like a long list of extra-ordinary flukes; a sort of ‘right place at the right time’ deal. Yet somewhere along the line we have acquired this romantic notion of science, we think of it as a deliberate interrogation of nature. The very concept of the ‘eureka’ and ‘newton’s apple’ moments implies that we consider scientists nearly perfect inductive reasoners; given enough time they could work it all out. However, I think this is only part of the picture; accidents and dumb luck have a much larger role in scientific progress than you might imagine.
We all know that Alexander Fleming discovered antibiotics purely by accident, when through his poor laboratory protocol he allowed a fungus to contaminate a petri dish of growing bacteria. The very next morning he noticed that there was a clear, impregnable ring around the fungus that apparently the growing bacterial colony could not impeach, and later found out that the fungus itself released a protein that would prevent bacterial growth, as a natural self-defence mechanism. Hey presto, antibiotics for the masses. No longer do people have to die in their millions of silly old infections.
Even the seeds of Einstein’s theory of relativity can be traced back to a few plucky 19th century astronomers who set out to measure the speed of light bouncing off the earth, in the direction the earth was going. According to newton it should be faster than normal, as you’d have to add the speed of light to the speed of the whole earth. Just like when a man is walking down the carriage of a moving train, his total speed is a combination of the train’s speed and his own walking pace. But bizarrely, when measured it was the same. Light did not get faster (or slower) at all, in fact light is always travelling at the speed of light relative to anyone, however fast they’re moving. (Luckily they documented this phenomenon well enough for a young Albert Einstein to ponder many decades later.)
In fact, all these examples of lucky observers pale in comparison to that which was made famous by physicist Lawrence Krauss in his book ‘a universe from nothing’. As we all know, the universe is expanding, which means everything is getting further away from everything else. More space is literally being created between things, pushing them further apart. Recently we discovered that not only is the universe expanding, but the rate of expansion itself is accelerating, so in a short few billion years, every galaxy will be so far away from every other galaxy that each one will be effectively isolated. Galaxies will be the desert islands of space, surrounded by nothing but an incredibly vast expanse so big that even light can’t traverse it.
Here’s the kicker: If intelligent life were to evolve in any of these galaxies during the coming ‘age of isolation’, they themselves would have no method of knowing that the universe was expanding. If they looked outwards they’d see nothing beyond the few stars huddled together in their own galaxy, suspended in endless black void. They wouldn’t be able to measure red-shift or the astronomical distances between celestial bodies, they would have no conception of black holes or singularities. They would have to assume that a simple, eternal, steady state model of the universe is true. To put it simply, they’d never get further than a 18th century understanding of astrophysics no matter how long they were around for. How fortunate we are to be born so soon in the life of the universe that everything is still close enough to be seen!
But what does that mean for science? What about its tradition of deduction and logic and pure rationality, does it all ultimately boil down to luck? By no means, I still there is great skill and reason involved in the progression of science, it’s just important not to deny the role of luck so far.
Alexander Fleming was a trained scientific mind, when he walked into the lab that fateful day and noticed something unexpected he didn’t just brush it aside and start over, he noticed its implications and set about looking deeper; this is the essence of Science. It is not necessarily about pure, rational or conscious deduction (though that would be ideal), but more noticing those unexpected phenomena and flukes when they arise in nature, documenting them, and attempting to understand them. Perhaps science is more about being watchful, and not letting even the seemingly insignificant little anomalies escape your attention.
Science is more akin to photography when considered in these terms. The photographer, like the scientist, is dependent ultimately on his equipment; its scope, resolution and quality will all affect the outcome of his work. He must be ever watchful and observant, with all his powers of observation trained on his subject. There is also a combination of luck and proficiency, neither is more important, without fortunate accidents we could not hope to make much progress at all, and without the ability to notice and utilize these mistakes then we would also be unable to advance.