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If chance favours the prepared mind, what can we
do to prepare those minds?
««« By Peter Child, PhD
Peter Child has a BSc. in chemistry (McMaster) and a PhD in biochemistry (Toronto).
He has been on faculty at the Department of Medical Biophysics at the University of
Toronto then moved into the environmental field in the late 1980s. In 1991, he
co-founded Investigative Science Incorporated, a scientific consulting firm with
laboratories in Burlington, Ontario. Over the course of a 35-year career, Dr. Child has
conducted thousands of experiments, many of which found their way into peer-
reviewed publications or technical reports. At every opportunity, Dr. Child judges at
science fairs at the elementary and high school levels in southern Ontario.
Curriculum Connection: All grades and subjects.
Canada is facing some stiff economic headwinds as global growth slows. We clearly need to develop new strategies beyond resource extraction in order to preserve and grow our standard of living. Recognizing this, the Ontario government now has a Minister of Economic Development and Innovation along with myriad programs to promote the development of ideas into saleable products. Ideas and innovations are now viewed as a key contributor to our future Given that backdrop, it might make sense to consider how discoveries are made and more importantly, how we can encourage or train young students to be on the lookout for new ideas. A key feature of discovery that has been somewhat overlooked in the rush to innovate is the role that chance plays in discovery. Our history is full of examples of great discoveries made entirely by accident. (1, 2). The important role of unexpected occurrences in discovery is elegantly captured in the following quote by Koestler (3): “The history of discovery is full of arrivals at unexpected destinations and arrivals at the right destination by the wrong boat”.
In this article, we will review some examples of major innovations that were essentially shaped by chance, then look at what teachers can do to help young minds be prepared to take advantage of such occurrences. A key goal is to introduce students to the idea that events may not always flow directly from their planned actions, but as often as not, will occur due to some fluke. Whether you are able to capitalize on the opportunity depends on how “prepared “you are.
First, let’s look at some examples. Hundreds of important products, ideas, theories, artifacts, territories and medicines exist today because of some chance event in the past. Such discoveries include America (Columbus was looking for India), Newton’s law of gravity, vaccination, Albertasaurus, Teflon, Crazy Glue, Viagra, The Dead Sea Scrolls, Post-It notes , penicillin, microwave ovens, germs and the list goes on (1,2). A more recent example, described in the biography of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs (4) illustrates the “arrival at an unexpected destination” category of discovery. According to Chance and the prepared mind
the biography, Jobs didn’t wake up one day and decide to re-invent the way music was distributed. No, the iPod and iTunes arose because of a design decision made years earlier that essentially boxed Apple into a corner. In the early days of Apple, Steve Jobs didn’t want his computers to have the drawer-style CD readers that were popular at the time.
He decided that Apple products would have the slot-style readers that were popular in car stereos. This was strictly a When CDs were first introduced as an alternative to cassette tapes, consumers were miffed because there was no way to copy music onto a CD as there had been with tapes. Not surprisingly, when Sony introduced a CD burner, allowing music to be copied to the new medium, everybody wanted one on their computers. Unfortunately for Apple, while the burner fit nicely into the CD drawer of PC computers, it would not fit into Apple’s slot version. By the time Jobs had installed a drawer-style burner into Macs, serious ground had been lost to their competitors. Jobs needed a serious new innovation to catch up. In a brilliant example of out of the box thinking, Jobs started thinking about how else he could get music onto devices without having to support pirated music copied using a conventional CD burner. The idea of a separate product to hold the music; the iPod, married to software to manage the music; iTunes, was born. The rest is history. The iPod, iTunes and iTunes Store went on to earn Apple a fortune and remade the music distribution industry in In another example from two centuries earlier, a chance observation helped change the world. Ignaz Semmelweis, a Viennese physician, observed that after childbirth in his hospital, 30% of the women in one ward died of puerperal fever, compared to only 3% in another ward. During an autopsy of a medical colleague, Semmelweis observed the presence of the same type of pathological tissue as found in the dead mothers and concluded that the occurrence was due to prox- imity to the room in which post-mortems were conducted. On further investigation, he established that the ward with the high death rate was routinely visited by students who had come straight from the post-mortem room. The other ward was attended only by midwives who were not exposed to the room. Once that connection had been made, Semmelweis insisted that all students wash their hands with carbolic and water before visiting patients. The death rate in the ward dropped from 30% to 1%. This discovery, which demonstrated that some pathogen which existed in the post- mortem room could be carried to living patients and cause their death, and which could be prevented by antiseptic tech- niques like hand-washing, was a key clue to the germ theory of infection. At the time, many believed that infections occurred spontaneously; the so-called “spontaneous generation” theory. Additional work by Lister and Pasteur would finally convince the world that infections were the results of micro-organisms, not spontaneous generation (5).
Louis Pasteur is not only well known for his work on micro-organisms. He also made many discoveries which arose from chance or unexpected observations. He coined this now famous phrase in 1854 (1): “When it comes to observation, chance favours (only) the prepared mind.” If Pasteur is correct and one’s mind needs to be prepared in some way in order to capitalize on chance observations, are there any features of this “preparedness” that we can discern from previous discoveries? More importantly, are there skills we can teach to prepare minds for the possibility of chance discoveries? It seems obvious that if we as a society need to become more innovative in order to compete, it would make sense to optimize our chances of capitalizing on occurrences presented to us by chance.
Chance and the prepared mind – Page 2
Several authors have attempted to identify key features of “the prepared mind”. Some of these features include: Curiosity (1): This is what drives the observer to chase down an unexpected occurrence. In a similar vein, Polanyi (6) describes passion for the subject as a major driver of scientific investigations.
A way of thinking that is open to the possibility of chance occurrences, or other ways of looking at things (1). Riley (7) calls this “openness”, or an ability to seize on unexpected or unplanned events.
Sagacity (8): This has been described as penetrating intelligence, keen perception and sound judgment.
Intellectual Readiness (9): This is the ability to recognize clues which may lead to meaningful discoveries.
Preparation, training and readiness (10).
The first two characteristics were identified after Robert’s review of over 100 chance discoveries (1). Sagacity has long been recognized as an important feature of chance discoveries, going back to the first use of the word “serendipity” which is attributed to Walpole (8). The term arises from the fable “The Three Princes of Serendip”; three guys who continually stumbled across unexpected events and through a combination of Sherlock Holmes-style deduction and “sagacity”, arrived at solutions to their problems (8).
It seems clear from a review of chance discoveries that “preparation” must also include some sort of framework for understanding of the problem at hand. This framework comes from exposure to the topic as well as a broad general knowledge. Newton did not simply observe an apple falling from a tree and immediately leap to the theory of gravity. He was primed to think in terms of the forces which attract two bodies as the result of his work on the factors governing motion (1). When Alexander Fleming observed that mould, which had accidently fallen onto a culture of bacteria, killed them, he was primed to make the connection because he was aware of the existence of antibacterial agents from earlier work (1,2,8). His chance observation led to the discovery of penicillin; the first antibiotic. Charles Goodyear discovered a process by which natural rubber could be made flexible under all conditions of heat or cold, by accident, when a piece of his treated rubber fell on a hot stove. Goodyear had been looking for such a process for years and so was primed by his earlier research and experience to make the necessary connections (2). The latter is an example of Koestler’s “arrival at the right destination in the wrong boat” type of discovery.
The idea of a framework of understanding was elegantly described (11) recently by a famous investor, Charles Munger, the business partner of Warren Buffet; Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. Munger suggests that to understand how markets work, one must educate oneself by whatever means necessary in order to develop a framework, which he calls a “latticework of theory”. He argues that if the facts you learn don’t hang on such a lattice, they are not in a useable form. He goes on to say that; “You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.” He makes the point that one needs several models in order to avoid trying to force your experience or new knowledge into one existing model. The same argument can be made when scientists (or students) are developing their hypotheses; it is better to retain multiple hypotheses to avoid becoming a slave to your favourite (12). Munger further recommends that the models should be from different disciplines. In his example, the disciplines could be mathematics, algebra, accounting and It seems reasonable to assume that in order to capitalize on an unexpected observation or occurrence, a pre-existing framework for understanding would help the prepared observer to make the important links. In the absence of such a Chance and the prepared mind – Page 3
framework, unexpected observations may simply pass by un-noticed. An example of this occurred in 1768 when a young man, Edward Jenner, was told by a milkmaid that she could never get small pox because she had had cowpox; a related disease spread by cattle (1). Later, when Jenner was a physician, he investigated this idea and found that indeed, milkmaids virtually never got smallpox. Apparently the local people all knew this. Jenner, however, immediately seized upon the importance of the information and developed the first inoculation for small pox using the secretions from cow- pox sores. As a result of this work in the late 1700s, small pox – once a deadly disease – has essentially been wiped from the Earth. Although the locals knew of the cowpox effect, we can assume that they had no framework of knowledge that would allow them to amplify the discovery to save millions of lives. The young doctor did! R.S. Lenox (13) proposed several steps that educators could take to maximize the probability that students would capitalize on an unexpected occurrence. These included: Encourage the practice of detailed observation and record keeping.
Give students an opportunity to partake in a longer-term, structured scientific research program. The key features of such a program would be that the student is encouraged to develop his or her own ideas and observations as part of a discovery process. An objective of this is to demonstrate that discovery can be done by the student and that the Encourage the habit of contemplating all observations, not just those that happen to conform to the student’s expec- tations. Experiments that “didn’t work”, should be explored to determine exactly what happened. It is worth pointing out that an investigator who looks only for what they are expecting to see is less likely to observe anything else or Encourage curiosity and a genuine enthusiasm for science.
It may strike the reader that a golden opportunity to expose students to the experiences described by Lenox would be provided by undertakings like science fairs. They provide an opportunity for longer term, in-depth study of a problem of the student’s choosing. In the process, students have an opportunity to contemplate the meaning of their observations including those cases where the experiment, study or innovation did not appear to work as planned. Science fairs cer- tainly encourage students to take detailed notes and record their observations, as these are categories on which the student is judged. An additional benefit is that students learn to explain their findings to someone else; a helpful skill Encouraging curiosity and enthusiasm is somewhat more difficult. Students enthusiastic about science fairs will naturally get to experience the thrill of discovery. We have noticed, though, that at our local regional science fair, enthu- siasm drops off significantly after grade 9. As we have discussed in an earlier article in this series (12), this may have something to do with the way science is perceived by students. Science is normally explained as a planned series of steps which march logically to an expected conclusion. It comes across as boring and very un-cool. In reality, science can be a creative process that takes turns, lurches one way, then the other, as the investigator pursues interesting and unexpected observations. Often these side trips don’t amount to anything, but occasionally, one may stumble across Teflon! Encouraging students to undertake projects from the point of view of, “what can I learn from this project?” rather than forcing strict adherence to the dogma of the standard scientific method may help to encourage their curiosity and sense of discovery (12). The phrase “exploration without assumptions” (14) captures the essence of this Chance and the prepared mind – Page 4
approach. It may work particularly well with younger students where the main goal is to encourage them to have fun with science. They can learn about the “hypothetico-deductive” approach later.
Whatever strategies are used to encourage students to become more curious and innovative, it is important to introduce them to the idea that a great deal of human endeavor is driven by chance occurrences. Examples can be taken from any walk of life to illustrate the point. For example, my own entry into a scientific career occurred completely by accident. As a 19-year old, I travelled to Australia and found a job in an asbestos mine (not all chance occurrences are good!). One day, while packing asbestos fibre into 100-pound bags at the mine, the manager came over and asked if I had finished high school in Canada. I confirmed that although I had just barely scraped through, I had my high school diploma. He said “You’re wasted out here, mate. I reckon you should be in the labra-tree”. It turns out that in Australia at the time, most young people quit school at 16 because there were so many jobs available. The mine wanted high school grads for the lab. The next day, I was a laboratory assistant – my first lab job.
Teachers can use similar examples from their own lives. Other famous examples are abundant. The point is to encourage students to be alert to the possibility that a single chance event, if observed and captured by a prepared mind, can lead to game-changing discoveries or innovations, not to mention life-changing opportunities.
Roberts, R.M. (1989) Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science. J. Wiley & Sons. Inc., New York, 1989 Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (2012) ‘Lemelson-MIT; Inventor of the Week’ Series, found at /. Site viewed March 16, 2012.
Koestler, A. (1964) cited in Rosenman, M.F. (2002) ‘Serendipity & Scientific Discovery.’ Creativity and Leadership in Isaacson, W. (2011) Steve Jobs. Simon & Schuster, New York.
Ronan, C. (1983) The Atlas of Scientific Discovery. Crescent Books, London.
Smith, M. K. (2003) ‘Michael Polanyi and tacit knowledge’, The encyclopedia of informal education, Riley, E (2007) cited in Buchem, I., ‘Serendipitous Learning: Recognizing and Fostering the Potential of Microblogging.’ Formare Open Journal, February 2011 Issue. ‘Microblogging in Education.’ Rosenman, M.F. (2002) ‘Serendipity & Scientific Discovery.’ Creativity and Leadership in the 21st Century Firm.
Fine, G. and Deegan, J. (1996) cited in Buchem, I., ‘Serendipitous Learning: Recognizing and Fostering the Potential of Microblogging.’ Formare Open Journal, February 2011 Issue. ‘Microblogging in Education.’ 10. Gritton, J. (2007), cited in Buchem, I., ‘Serendipitous Learning: Recognizing and Fostering the Potential of Microblogging.’ Formare Open Journal, February 2011 Issue. ‘Microblogging in Education.’ 11. Munger, C., (2008) The Art of Stock Picking. 12. Child, P. (2012) “It’s OK For Novice Scientists to be Hypothesis-Free”, Crucible Online : 1-7, March 13. R.S. Lenox, R.S. (1985) ‘Educating for the Serendipitous Discovery’, J. Chem. Education. 62: 282-285.
14. Morton, W.R. and Swindler, K., (2005) ‘Serendipitous Insights Involving Nonhuman Primates’. ILAR Journal, Chance and the prepared mind – Page 5
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