There's no luck in science.1 Rather than say we scientists are lucky or fortunate to find some interesting reactivity (to look specifically at the chemistry sides of science), we have to say we designed it, or at least designed the screening process by which we found it. Rather than “discover” things, we “engineer” or develop” them. We “invent” rather than “stumble upon” reactions, if we are to believe our own writing. Heck, we even have to claim we're accelerating serendipity,2 as if the notion of manipulating serendipity didn't change its meaning altogether (the opposing meanings does make it a catchy title though). An ironic aspect of this phenomenon, especially in the field of organic synthesis, is that removing words like “discover” from our manuscripts makes us sound even more like engineers rather than practitioners of basic science.
I poke fun at this trend of playing off accidental discoveries as products of
our own scientific prowess and am overall against it, there are very real
practical and psychological purposes behind it. Probably the first is to adhere
to the standard of never admitting weakness in publications. Pride and
self-confidence are requisite to get anything published. People won't know your
science is awesome unless you tell them, and this has translated to everyone
always claiming their stuff shifts whole paradigms in science. The second
purpose, and probably the more important one, is that a scientist cannot admit
how dependent on luck they are because it creates an existential conundrum. If
they are not coming up with experiments for a reason, then scientists realize
they aren't any better at what they do than an 11-year-old would be after getting
simple directions from someone else. That realization hurts when we think of
all the work we've been through to get here. It is the same thing with wealthy
people: if they admit to themselves that they got their money riding Lady
Luck’s coattails then they have to admit they are no better than anyone else
and then wealth disparity bothers them a lot more than otherwise.
obfuscate all evidence of luck and discovery because we think it will give us
publications and help us avoid the idea that we're monkeys, but is this really
how science works? People say “Chance favors the prepared mind” and “Fortune
favors the brave.” Even though, once again, we feel it is our excellent
characteristics that allow us to be lucky when we say these things, we are at
least admitting the presence of luck in science. Heathcock’s incredible
of daphniphyllum alkaloids benefited from a vendor mislabeling a bottle of
methylamine as ammonia, and Heathcock was willing to describe this event as a “serendipitous
discovery.” Imagine if Fleming told
people he designed the experiment where spores from another lab would
contaminate his bacteria. Surely people would have laughed at the thought. We
make similar claims today, but people ignore it and move on in the paper
because they understand that's how it works.
is luck in science! Oftentimes we try something and get an undesired and
unexpected result, but we have to say we planned for the possibility and used
it further or never publish it at all. Can you imagine all of the cool science
that never gets published because they are “failed” experiments? Sometimes our
screens truly have randomness (out of desperation?) and something happens we'd
never expect. Sometimes something that's supposed to be an innocent bystander
actually interacts with things and affects the outcome of the experiment.
Sometimes somebody sets up an experiment “incorrectly” and learns something
completely new because of it. These all have to do with science itself, but
another aspect of luck in our lives is that successful scientists are also
often lucky with their choices of advisors and projects, as well as who works
on those projects with them.
understand that each of these examples might be guided and recognized by
informed and wise scientists, and that it depends on the circumstances, but
shouldn't we admit to ourselves and others that luck plays a role in science?
Let's bring back the word “discover” for the sake of basic science. We
scientists value clarity and descriptiveness in our writing, so let's be a
little more descriptive about how science works.3
1. I wanted to say “There is no
luck in science anymore,” but ten
minutes searching didn’t give me conclusive evidence luck was ever in science
(though I am impressed with the Sharpless and Heathcock).
I’m such a responsible blogger right?
2. All of these links are
purposely chosen as examples of great chemistry in our field that made the
designated word choices. I hold them all in very high esteem chemistry-wise, so
please don’t send me hate mail or reject any future applications for a job.
3. As always, this post doesn’t
necessarily represent the opinions of Phil Baran or anyone else in the lab, so
please don’t try to hold them responsible for it.