Luck or good judgment?

No, this isn’t about Chris Martin’s batting performance at the Basin Reserve.

A couple of weeks ago, I thought I might have discovered a new phenomenon in biophysics. I won’t bore you with the details, but it concerned the behaviour of neurons (brain cells) under external stimulus. Now, I could have rushed out and tried to publish my results, but a few things about it just didn’t seem to make sense, and I took some time to examine my results a bit more closely. To my dismay (or maybe relief) I found that my new phenomenon could be attributed to the way I’d processed the data. No new phenomenon, no Nobel Prize coming my way. Such is science.


Now here’s the point – a prudent scientist will carefully consider and criticise his own work before opening it up to the comments of the general scientific community. If I’d rushed out and published my results, without proper investigation, I’d now be looking very silly. Cold fusion springs to mind here. While it is true that some startling new phenomena are found entirely by accident, the typical scientist is unlikely to get many (or any) or these occurences in his career.

Henri Becquerel is an example of a physicist who had that lucky break – in his case he left a lump of uranium salt in his desk drawer among with some undeveloped photographic plates – the fogging of the latter was what led to his discovery of radioactivity in 1896. But even though he was fortunate – he exhibited a lot of good judgment – he carefully investigated this new effect and carried out some well designed experiments before he put in his letter to the Academie des sciences in Paris. He thoroughly deserves his name to be attached to the unit of radioactive activity for some good science.

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