Leeway: Serendipitous Science and the Usefulness of Obscure Research


This is part of a series of posts describing science in terms of a new social contract with clauses and expectations of both scientists and society. The links for all of the posts so far can be found on the ‘highlights’ page. So if you are interested, start there to get the complete contract.

In my original post about a new social contract for science and society, I didn’t go into too many practical details as to how to make these terms work for all of us. So let’s dig a little deeper into the next term of the contract…

“Give us some leeway on basic research because some practical innovations come about fortuitously.”

There are numerous stories documenting how instances of scientific serendipity contribute to innovation. For all of our striving to proceed logically, sometimes it is the experimental failures or setbacks that thrust us unexpectedly forward. Some research may sound so preposterous as to evoke brazen ridicule, but it too can prove invaluable. Scientists are asking you- give us a break sometimes.

“There are no applied sciences, only applications of science.” Louis Pasteur

One famous serendipitous discovery is that of antibiotics by Alexander Fleming. He was working on the influenza virus when some of his bacterial culture plates became contaminated with mold. Contamination is a fact of life in the world of microbiology, but Fleming noticed that the common fungus on his plate (Penicillium notatum) prevented the growth of his bacterial culture. He decided to pursue this observation and discovered a potent substance made by the mold that could kill bacteria. It is known as penicillin. This discovery had immediate medical applications and spawned a new field of antimicrobial research. There is no question that the discovery and use of antibiotics has had an enormous effect on modern society, but it is all because

“One sometimes finds what one is not looking for.” Sir Alexander Fleming

Other breakthroughs to which acts of chance and serendipity played a role include X-rays, insulin, the pacemaker, and vulcanized rubber.

Many of the above-mentioned researchers would have been described as working on obviously important subjects. Chance events certainly accelerated their breakthroughs, but their research otherwise would have been considered useful. There is also another class of fortuitous discovery in which research that could only be described as obscure leads to critical technological advances. These examples highlight the need for all kinds of basic research. If they can yield practical applications, then no research topic should be disparaged. Congress now bestows the “Golden Goose Award” to honor these scientists whose research

“demonstrates the human and economic benefits of federally funded research by highlighting examples of seemingly obscure studies that have led to major breakthroughs and resulted in significant societal impact.”

I would encourage you to read the portfolios of the awardees. It is amazing to see how history has justified the research that laid the foundation for laser technology, which in its time was considered a waste of money, or how studies on what makes jellyfish fluorescent contribute to modern research in cell biology and genetics. So again, I ask you the public to give us some leeway on our research subjects because you can really never tell what application may be waiting around the corner.


UPDATE 12/06/13:

It has been brought to my attention (see comment below) that the first Golden Goose Awardee, was perhaps just a goose. Well, obviously not the technology since the Coulter Counter is, in fact real, but the story behind hardened paint in the garage was complete fiction! It’s what I get for assuming someone else on the award board (and numerous other science news outlets that ran similar snippets of the story) had done their homework. Check out this Open Access article “The Coulter Principle: Imaginary Origins” for a thorough de-bunking of this scientific urban legend. Note that my link to the Wallace Coulter Awardee page (below) is broken and no record exists for this gaffe on the Golden Goose Award page.

So, I am retracting this paragraph that was included in the original post:

The first awardee for 2013 is Wallace H. Coulter. The goal of his research was to find a way to paint Navy ships a uniform color because current technology was insufficient. It turns out the technology he developed to analyze paint samples provided a faster, more-reliable way to count red blood cells than the standard method at the time. This connection came about because the paint samples he would have used to test his invention hardened in his garage lab. Instead of going out in the bad weather to get more paint, he tried the invention out on the only other liquid available to him with similar properties- his own blood. Of course, his machine was able to detect the red blood cells in his sample and the rest is history. Can you imagine the spark he must have felt after getting that result? His invention remains the standard technology behind the most-ordered medical diagnostic test in the world the Complete Blood Count (CBC). The moral of the story is that even something as mundane as paint analysis can yield an important breakthrough for society.


7 thoughts on “Leeway: Serendipitous Science and the Usefulness of Obscure Research

  1. Randy Womack

    Did you know that your brother (me) won a spelling bee in the 7th grade by correctly spelling and providing the definition for the word “serendipity.” I defined it as looking for a needle in a hay stack and finding the farmer’s daughter. The rest of my classmates sat down as a sign of respect. That day, I was the man!

    1. johnnaroose Post author

      Yes, Randy, that is also a good example of serendipity. I had a feeling there was a long history behind your inappropriate humor 🙂 I’m sure Mom and Dad were proud.

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  4. Marshall Don. Graham, Ph.D.

    You are trying to do something I think is worthwhile. However, the content at https://newunderthesunblog.wordpress.com/2013/07/02/leeway/ regarding Wallace H. Coulter’s nonexistent research on Navy paint demonstrates the uncritical acceptance of web items you are trying to reduce. Please see my open-access communication to the Editor of Cytometry A at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cyto.a.22398/abstract. The interactions mentioned therein have resulted in your “Wallace H. Coulter” link dead-ending.
    A search shows your fictional content may be accessible via several other sites. Cannot you depublish this fictional content?

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