Thursday, July 9, 2015

Luck and Cleverness in Scientific Discovery

There is an element of luck in most scientific discoveries, but there is also the important matter of realizing when you have made a discovery. William Roentgen was not the first person to notice that radium could fog photographic film, but he was the first person to carry out a systematic investigations of why, leading to his discovery of x-rays. (According to scientific legend, the first person  to notice the fogging concluded that radium and film should not be stored together.) Jennifer Doudna, who won one of last year's Breakthrough Prizes in biology, recently explained that her research was also based on an accidental discovery:
When Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier discovered the most powerful DNA editing technology we know of, CRISPR-Cas9 — something MIT Technology Review described as "the biggest biotech discovery of the century" — they weren't looking for a world-transforming DNA editing tool. Doudna tells Business Insider that they were studying the system that bacteria use to defend themselves against viruses, something that might be considered basic research, science pursued just for the sake of greater understanding.

Their project was a curiosity-driven initiative to understand a biological mechanism, not an attempt to create or uncover something immediately useful.

But then: "One day ... we realized, gosh, this could be a very powerful technology," says Doudna.

They noticed that the system bacteria use to shut down viruses had an uncanny way of targeting specific sections of virus DNA — and that, with the correct programming, this system could seek out any section of DNA and slice it up. Not only that, if accompanied by other coding material, this process could also replace one section of DNA with a new section of DNA.

They realized they'd found an incredibly precise tool.
This is one thing about science that middling archaeologists like me understand very well. We rarely have any idea what we're going to find when we start surveying in the path of a new highway, so if we are going to make any scholarly contribution it must be by being open to the possibility of whatever we stumble onto.

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