The quantum of luck or chance in scientific discovery – Part 2

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What ultimately leads to actual discovery is a scientist’s own genius, passion for detail, persistence, hard work and determination.

One cannot perhaps discuss serendipity without mentioning the discovery of Penicillin by Sir Alexander Fleming in 1929. Fleming had accidently left behind a petri dish containing fungus mould in his laboratory. On the next day he had discovered that a colony of bacteria adjacent to the dish had been wiped out. He had thus established a definite correlation between the presence of this mould (Penicillin) and the destruction of the bacteria.But Fleming was lucky on another count, in respect of his above discovery. Almost all antibiotics arrest the growth of bacteria by interfering with the metabolic processes of a kind bacteria have in common with higher organisms. Therefore they are extremely toxic and cause harm to human tissue also. However, Penicillin, unlike those antibiotics, happens to interfere with a synthetic process peculiar to bacteria only, namely the synthesis of a distinct structural element of the bacterial cell wall. The cells in the human body contain only membranes and not cell walls -hence they are protected from damage.

Therefore, by sheer luck the particular antibiotic that Fleming had discovered had both the qualities that he been specifically looking for, the destruction of bacteria without at the same time harming human tissue.

Other antibiotics are terribly toxic and are harmful to human tissue. They would not exactly have satisfied Fleming’s twin criteria.

It must however be borne in mind that Fleming in fact had been feverishly searching since the middle of the First World War, for some powerful agent or drug that could destroy bacteria, without harming human tissue. In Penicillin he found the right antibiotic he was looking for. Penicillin is rightly regarded as the king of antibiotics.But one must also not lose sight of the fact that in Fleming’s case, all the essential ingredients necessary to pave the way for a major breakthrough had already been there; an astute investigator with genius and patience, a well-equipped laboratory, a proper academic atmosphere and also the correct motivation. Luck favoured him, enabling him to clinch the issue!

This essay would be incomplete without a mention of the discovery of the structure of the DNA by the brilliant British scientist Francis Crick and the energetic and dynamic American scientist James Watson, which produced as great a revolution in biology as Einstein’s relativity had done in physics.The discovery was the result of the combination of teamwork of four scientists and incredible luck. Francis Crick with his background in physics and X-ray crystallography and James Watson with his background in viral and bacterial genetics had found each other by sheer luck, in the summer of 1951 in the Cavendish laboratory of England’s renowned Cambridge university. Watson had before him several other scientific branches for carrying out research, but by sheer chance, chose to do research in molecular biology with Crick!They immediately went about the task of elucidating the structure of the DNA with single minded focus, over the course of the next eighteen months. Drawing on the X-ray diffraction results obtained by Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin who were working in King’s College, and relying on their own brilliant intuition, persistence and luck, the two showed that DNA had a structure sufficiently complex and yet elegantly simple to be the master molecule of life.As in the case of Archimedes, several centuries ago, there is an anecdote, concerning Crick. It would appear that with a mixture of pride and excitement, Crick had announced to the assembled lunch patrons in The Eagle Pub on February 28, 1953 (after their conceptual breakthrough) that they had “found the secret of life”, which according to Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar, is one of the two greatest scientific triumphs of the 20th, century, the other one being Einstein’s Relativity.

In analysing the part played by luck in scientific discovery, Medawar has drawn a distinction between a man who buys a lottery ticket that fetches him a prize and another who does not buy a ticket but only accidentally finds  somewhere, let us say a park bench, a lottery ticket that turns out to be the winning one. According to him the former who has “purchased his candidature” for a turn of favourable events that have given him the prize, is a true scientist whereas the latter who has been aided only by a blind stroke of luck is quite obviously not.

Thus, in Medawar’s opinion while evaluating a scientist’s work it would be incorrect to give “luck” a measure of credit far out of proportion to its real importance. No doubt luck does sometimes help a scientist to a certain extent by drawing his attention to a seemingly insignificant detail which might have escaped his notice due to circumstances beyond his control. But what ultimately leads to the actual discovery is the scientist’s own genius, passion for detail, persistence, hard work, and determination.