A little while ago, I entered a writing competition that posed the following questions: Do you believe in serendipity in Science? Do you think luck has a place in science?
I had 300 words or less to answer this question. While I didn’t win (damn!), I wanted to share with you my thoughts on the matter. Here is my entry:
There’s an ongoing joke amongst my PhD cohort: research is 90% failure, 10% relief. Of course, I never knew this before coming into a research role; my view was much more romantic and I dreamed of fields filled with Nobel Prizes and Prime Ministerial handshakes.
But such a rosy view is far from the demoralising truth, one quite removed from the magic of my fantasies. In reality, each step in the scientific process is fraught with problems, becoming more disastrous with time. What starts off as a simple hypothesis or aim tumbles into an unstoppable juggernaut.
And as the juggernaut courses further from the start, we ask ourselves: is it worth it? Do we run with the uncertain momentum of this concussive force knowing that failure may be the dust that settles?
No matter the unfortunate odds, the answer always seems to be yes. We stare science straight in the eye and toil. And eventually, just maybe, we’re rewarded with relief – that momentous joy of discovery where time pauses for your ecstasy.
As scientists, we’re driven by these moments and in turn, elevate their existence to mythical status. They signify that it was all worth it – that the stresses and failures have transcended normality and we have overcome something Herculean. Those moments become iconic in our memory and we convince ourselves that it must only have arrived by some hand-trick of destiny.
However, it’s not the alignment of dreams and chance that push us to discovery – it’s hard work and dedication. Research is not just about waving the intellectual sword, but wielding the emotional shield to deflect the failures that compound one stressful event on top of another.
Serendipity doesn’t favour discovery, but ardor does and sometimes that’s the only thing you need.
I do think that luck and chance exist in science, just as it does in any other profession. But I don’t think discovery is an especial byproduct of it. Let me know your thoughts on this question in the comments below