In praise of serendipity — and scientific obsession

Two fields of science seem to stand as far apart as possible — botany and astrophysics.

In one field, scientists may amble through bosky glens seeking elusive, rare vegetation. In the other, teams may use massive, multimillion-dollar machines to blast targets into smithereens and study some of the most dramatic events in the known universe, including how stars are born and die. Yet both species of scientist are driven by a desire to discover, and a refusal to quit despite the difficulty of a quest that can take decades and promises no sure rewards.

In this issue, we delve into the world of botanists trying to save the last plants of their kind from extinction. This is native soil for life sciences writer Susan Milius. In thinking about what makes the plant partisans  tick, “what struck me was that a practice of observation, or maybe a passion for observation, favors serendipity,” Milius told me. She notes that Norma Etta Pfeiffer, who discovered the rare Thismia americana in 1912, was on her hands and knees in a prairie looking for liverworts. Her patient, intent gaze spied that Thismia, a plant with a flower no bigger than a pinkie nail.

The same goes for Dan Gluesenkamp, a plant ecologist who discovered a  manzanita long thought extinct while commuting along a California freeway. “He says he notices stuff,” Milius said. “He once found a valuable painting in a dumpster because out of the corner of his eye, something just caught his attention.” But finding that manzanita while zipping by was the find of a lifetime.

Physics writer Emily Conover introduces us to Hye-Sook Park, a physicist who blows stuff up. Park is trying to re-create the massive forces generated by the exploding stars called supernovas. She hopes to understand the impacts of the phenomenal energy the explosions release, and what that can tell us about the workings of the universe.

Park had a serendipitous encounter with a supernova as a graduate student in the 1980s, while working on an experiment in a salt mine 600 meters under Lake Erie. A supernova exploded, and the experiment detected neutrinos the blast launched earthward. “Yes, serendipity was important in the initial discovery of the neutrinos from the supernova,” Conover told me. Park’s more recent work, Conover said, requires years of effort and planning. Park is now working with some of the world’s most powerful lasers in an effort to re-create the shock waves generated in the aftermath of supernovas, at minuscule scale.

By describing Park’s work, Conover opens a door into a mysterious world that most of us will never experience. I’m more familiar with the plant people, and was delighted to find a shout-out in Milius’ story to the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill. I grew up not far away; my brothers worked there as students, pulling weeds as part of a prairie restoration project. I remember being included in a “slide-in,” where scientists shared slideshows and enthusiastically debated plant taxonomy. It didn’t turn me into a botanist, but I learned to appreciate the passion and dedication it takes to continue the hunt for a last surviving plant, or plumb mysteries of the universe in miniature.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.