Success in science depends on luck, plus much more

Like anything else in life, there is a lot of luck in scientific success. Astronomers searching for new worlds have to pick the right sections of sky. Biologists cross their fingers that their cell lines will survive long enough for an experiment. Two paleontologists are excavating at a field site in Montana — both skilled, both committed. One turns up a T. rex skeleton; the other, nothing but dirt. In the end, it’s the luck of the dig.

A fruitful career in science can also depend on the luck of birth. Early exposure to the wonders of discovery, access to a good education and the wisdom of an academic mentor are all matters often outside of a future scientist’s control. As is the historical context in which a scientist lives. It’s impossible to know, but what if Albert Einstein had been born a century earlier, or a century later? Would his mind, brilliant as it was, still have been suited to solve the puzzles of the day? Would his insights have been ignored? Or would his ideas have arrived too late, with someone else making his biggest discoveries? More than one Nobel laureate has credited success, at least in part, to being in the right place at the right time.

In the 1920s, two sociologists explored the idea of “the right time” by asking the question: Are inventions inevitable? William Ogburn of Columbia University and his student Dorothy Thomas studied the phenomenon of simultaneous discovery — the fact that multiple people often hit on the same idea at the same time. The duo compiled a list of 148 “inventions and discoveries made independently by two or more persons.” Included were the discovery of Neptune (1840s), the branch of mathematics known as calculus (1670s) and the function of the pancreas (1830s). Ogburn and Thomas went on to ask a number of lofty questions, including: “Are inventions independent of mental ability?”

My answer? Most definitely not. Yes, advances are often a product of their times. One step forward requires previous steps, the bubbling and building of data and ideas; even Isaac Newton stood on the shoulders of giants. But the individual is absolutely essential. It’s the individual brain, often in collaboration with other individual brains, that takes the work that has come before and figures out how to add to it. It’s that unique contribution that makes for scientific progress. Such progress might come from a spark of insight, a moment of creativity or a steady pound, pounding on a problem. It might come from the drive required to go big, say by putting 1,600 tubs of ultrapure water at the foot of the Andes to detect cosmic rays. Individuals have to take some initiative to do something great with what they’ve got.

Often the most game-changing discoveries come from the boldness to imagine that existing paradigms might be wrong. That’s a theme repeated in this special issue. For the third year, Science News is spotlighting 10 early- and mid-career scientists who are — through their own special mixes of personal attributes — leaving a mark on their fields. It’s a rare (for us) celebration of the individual. And it demonstrates that luck is not enough. Not nearly.

Elizabeth Quill

Elizabeth Quill is the executive editor. She has overseen collections on topics ranging from consciousness to general relativity, and recently took a deep dive into the periodic table of the elements.

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