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What is the role of accidental discovery, inductive leap, and cross-pollenization of ideas between disciplines in Science?

What is the role of accidental discovery, inductive leap, and cross-pollenization of ideas between disciplines in Science?

There is a general belief that the path to great discovery and scientific break-through follows the course of greatest academic achievement, most disciplined and methodical research, and greatest awareness of a very focused area of study. As Pasteur might agree, while this course prepares your mind to be able to understand and envision the effects of a new idea, it does not necessarily provide the creative spark that leads to the generation of a new idea or discovery.

Serendipitious discoveries have yieided many leaps in science. Serendipity means a "happy accident" or "pleasant surprise"; a fortunate mistake. Specifically, the accident of finding something good or useful while not specifically searching for it.(wiki).

I hope to accomplish two things with this question. First, identify to young inventors, scientists, and designers that history has proven that great discoveries often come through a serendipitous circumstance. “What if..” questions involving merging and combining aspects of other disciplines, branches of science, or observations in nature might lead to the type of lateral thinking that could yield discoveries. Second, to ask the more experienced folks out there can point to instances where they have made such an inductive leap that might serve to exemplify how something in one area was used to solve a problem or cause a discovery in another.

Perhaps a technique for generating new ideas is itself an idea worth spreading.

I included a few wiki links for those that are interested.




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    Jun 30 2013: I see two different questions here. One is about discoveries made by accident and the other about cross-pollination. There is separate literature in these two areas.

    People who study creativity have long suggested that creative processes fall in two broad categories- spontaneous and methodical. One example often brought forward of apparently accidental or spontaneous discovery is the discovery of the benzene ring (the idea that benzene had the shape of a ring), which came to the discoverer in a dream.

    Another example not already on the Wikipedia page is the invention of Velcro, which idea came to its inventor when bristles stuck to a garment outdoors.

    Richard Feynman's Nobel prize winning finding came to him as he was spinning his dinner plate in the cafeteria at Cornell.

    Perhaps these do not fit your theory, though, because these ideas could come only to what Pasteur called "the prepared mind." None suggests the prepared mind was not vital for these insights.

    Steven Johnson's TED talk is about how creative discoveries typically occur at crossroads of exchange of ideas, but there is plenty of research to the effect that golden ages typically arise when different cultures have had a sudden opportunity to come into contact.

    Indeed methods of coming up with new ideas have had quite a market for decades now. One early one, which I used in teaching twenty-five years ago is called Thinkertoys, but over the last quarter century there have been hundreds of others at least.

    Another that comes quickly to mind because it is recent is Harvard's Shelley Carson's Your Creative Brain, which offers a variety of exercises for enhancing creativity and arriving at original ideas. Another methodology I have seen recently was presented in The Design of Artifacts in Society, written by a Wharton professor and inventor whose name at this moment escapes me but who teaches strategies for generating new ideas in design of objects.

    But a quick internet search will bear ample fruit.
    • Jul 1 2013: Thanks for insight Fritzie!

      Coss-pollenization of ideas and serendipity may be two creative methods, but I was grouping them together in the category "not blind pursuit of academic excellence or targeted research". I wanted to point out that a creative general awareness was important.

      I agree with Louie that preparing the mind is a great way to increase your chances, but I want those preparing their minds to have their eyes and minds open along the way. Take notice of the curiousity of others, discoveries in other fields, and participate in "water-cooler talk", pop science, industry conferences, and advances made in other walks of life.

      For example, in one of my job experiences, almost everyone was getting the same set of industry publications. Aside from being a colossal waste of paper, they were all seeing the same articles, ads, and thoughts. Someone from a different background wanders in, and now a different set of publications is being circulated. Cooler talk, or a shared drink after work during travel, is an excellent opportunity to catch up on projects being accomplished by others. Seemingly small, but quite often one branch of the same organization has no idea what another branch is up to!

      Cruising through the hardware store, browsing patents at the USPTO website, wandering through old stockpiles of research project or equipment, all of these can help the creative process. Like so many other things, constantly practicing, learning, and preparing in your field is almost always a good thing. However, there is something to be said for wandering in unfarmiliar areas now and then just to get new ideas, different perspectives, or fresh thoughts. Doing so should increase the probability of both cross-pollenization of ideas and accidental discoveries.
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        Jul 1 2013: Some people theorize that the reason people's best ideas often arise when they are not deliberately focusing on the problem at hand is "opportunistic assimilation." In other words, you notice something unrelated that nevertheless brings to mind an idea off the path you were following in a deliberate way.

        This is one reason many people carry some sort of recording device in their pockets or bags when they are out and about or next to the bed. I certainly do!
  • Jul 1 2013: Crossing disciplines is the essential of creative thought. Even without academic labels creative thought is the application to any discipline of the unique discipline of the individual mind(s)
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    Jul 1 2013: Thanks, Robert, for a very well-crafted post! I have the distinct impression that more advancements in technology, medicine, and industry result from unexpected, unanticipated discoveries than from micro-focused, meticulously prescribed research. Edwin Hubble Chapin said, "Through every rift of discovery some seeming anomaly drops out of the darkness, and falls, as a golden link, into the great chain of order." I think it is those "seeming anomalies" that change the momentum of civilization. How very exciting to venture into the "darkness" in search of those "golden links" which strengthen the "chain of order".
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    Jul 1 2013: Wasn't it Sir Fred Hoyle who said "It takes just one observation to change everything?"