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October 10, 2005
Time and Chance
A recent comment here says:
Scientific progress, ie medical breakthroughs, are just as likely to come through dumb luck or chance as from having the most briliant mind thinking about them. Its about having larger numbers of scientists working, rather than having larger numbers of "smart" people working. In some respects, it might be better to have more people who are not all that careful, ie, more accidents = more progress."
I know what this person is trying to say, but I think that this is only about half right. I'd be the last person to minimize the role of chance in scientific discovery. It's not something that everyone likes to talk about, or sometimes even admit to themselves, but it's true. People get ideas from all sorts of places. If you didn't pick up the journal article that you did one day, or talk to the right colleague, or just look out the window at the right time, you might not have had the ideas come to you that later on looked so inevitable.
But that said, bringing in more people to have accidents is a little like washing your car to make it rain. The problem is, you need accidents and you need people who know what they're looking at when they happen. The kinds of people who slop around the lab the most are, sad to say, often the ones who don't realize when something big is happening right in front of them. What you'd want is to find some Alexander Flemings, people who are meticulously messy. Pasteur was absolutely right about fortune favoring the prepared mind.
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