Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Lady Luck Deserves Her Citations Too

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.

Although 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.

We 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 biomimetic synthesis 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.

There 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.

I 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.


  1. "Accelerated serendipity." Maybe it's intended to be an oxymoron to make technical writing more enjoyable by applying flowery literary devices.
    Oh, and btw, I love the blog but the white letters on black gives me a headache so I don't read it as often as I would otherwise. Can you pass that on to whomever manages the design. Cheers.

    1. I think it is a fantastic title for the very reasons you describe. I am sorry if I made it sound otherwise; I just thought it was funny in the context of a discussion on luck. And I am all for flowery language to liven up the literature, but there are a lot of traditions you have to dance around at the same time that make it difficult. Sorry about the headaches. I will alert the guys in charge of design.