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Science Technology

The Key To Astronomy Has Often Been Serendipity 51

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the louis-pasteur-had-it-right dept.
Ars Technica has a great look at just how often serendipity plays a part in major astronomy advances. From Galileo to the accidental discovery of cosmic microwaves, it seems that it is still better to be lucky than good. "But what's stunning is a catalog of just how common this sort of event has been. Herschell was looking for faint stars when he happened across the planet Uranus, while Piazi was simply creating a star catalog when he observed the object that turned out to be the first asteroid to ever be described, Ceres I."
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The Key To Astronomy Has Often Been Serendipity

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  • This is surprising? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by hedwards (940851) on Friday January 01, 2010 @01:16PM (#30614832)
    Luck has always and probably always will play a strong role in science. The fact that the first blood transfusion happened to work was mostly luck, had it not worked out well it would've probably been quite some time before somebody tried again. Watson and Crick getting to the double helix first required a bit of luck as they probably wouldn't've gotten there first if they weren't lucky enough to be able to get x-ray crystallography from a different research institution.
    • by garg0yle (208225) on Friday January 01, 2010 @01:23PM (#30614878) Journal

      My point too... How is this news? As has often been said, science is less about "Eureka!" and more about "Hmm, that's odd..."

    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 01, 2010 @01:24PM (#30614880)

      Even more: astronomy is mainly an observational science. If something does not happen (or more preciselly, the information of the event arrives) right when you are looking out, you will never discover it. You cannot set up an experiment to test your ideas you always need to be lucky enough to see things happen.

      Ok. So that theory about the big bang is nice. Let's make another big bang so we can test it.

    • by samkass (174571) on Friday January 01, 2010 @01:33PM (#30614924) Homepage Journal

      It's funny how "lucky" things often happen to those striving to do new and interesting things in various pursuits. In order for luck to cause anything to happen you have to be set up to take advantage of the lucky situation. The more you do the "luckier" you'll get. (As long as you keep your eyes open while you do it.)

      • by khallow (566160)
        I think it's more that by doing new and interesting things, you create the "lucky" situation. And as long as you keep your eyes open, you can then take advantage of the "luck" you create.
      • by shipbrick (929823)
        "I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it." - Thomas Jefferson
      • It's funny how "lucky" things often happen to those striving to do new and interesting things in various pursuits. In order for luck to cause anything to happen you have to be set up to take advantage of the lucky situation. The more you do the "luckier" you'll get. (As long as you keep your eyes open while you do it.)

        "Chance favors the prepared mind" - Loius Pasteur

    • by Z00L00K (682162) on Friday January 01, 2010 @01:50PM (#30615006) Homepage

      In addition to luck you must also have a flexible mind. This to be able to interpret the unexpected data. Otherwise you can only dismiss it as magic.

      Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
              Arthur C. Clarke, "Profiles of The Future", 1961 (Clarke's third law)

    • Don't forget dark matter. If I remember correctly, the dark matter kick got started when some astronomers decided to screw around with a huge telescope and just take random pictures of the sky. They saw some unexpected gravitational lensing and went from there.
      • by RockDoctor (15477)

        If I remember correctly, the dark matter kick got started when some astronomers decided to screw around with a huge telescope and just take random pictures of the sky. They saw some unexpected gravitational lensing and went from there.

        It's not impossible that you're remembering correctly, and it's simply that your sources were hopelessly ill-informed to the extent that it's almost malicious.

        some astronomers decided to screw around with a huge telescope

        Yeah, like, that happens? I did a course in observatio

    • The fact that the first blood transfusion happened to work was mostly luck, had it not worked out well it would've probably been quite some time before somebody tried again.

      You're thinking of the successful blood transfusions in the 19th century. Nobody remembers the first blood transfusions in 1667, which did not work out well at all. Jean-Baptiste Denys gave four people blood transfusions from sheep. (It was thought that lamb's blood would quiet the spirit of a tempestuous person, while the shy would be made more outgoing by blood from more sociable creatures.) Surprisingly most of his patients recovered and felt great. Except for one guy who felt so good he went to a tavern

    • There is more to scientific serendipity than just luck. A degree of luck is certainly involved, as by definition the process involves observing something one did not plan to see. However, that is why scientists do research: If we only ever saw what we expected to see, then why bother?

      But there is an important additional ingredient to it, and that is being able to actually absorb the unexpected and to be able to think of a reasonable explanation for it. The ability to give unexpected data a rational interpre

    • Not surprising at all. Astronomy is still a field where there is a lot of "discovery" going on. In many other sciences, we basically know what everything does, and we are trying to find out how those things happen, whereas in astronomy, we're still trying to discover what's out there. When you don't know what you're looking for, the only way that you can find it is luck.

  • The Sky is Big (Score:3, Insightful)

    by PPH (736903) on Friday January 01, 2010 @01:24PM (#30614884)

    Odds are if an astronomer is going to be looking around for evidence to support one hypothesis, they'll come across lots of other stuff while they're at it.

    Its not the same as staring at the sludge in the bottom of a test tube.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Bigjeff5 (1143585)

      Its not the same as staring at the sludge in the bottom of a test tube.

      Are you kidding? Do you not realize how many scientific discoveries occur because scientists were looking at one thing and found something totally unexpected? It kind of defines "discovery".

      Not all things are predicted, in fact most things aren't.

      Look at vulcanized rubber for example, it was a complete accident. Goodyear had the basics in place, but it wasn't until he accidentally dropped some of it on the iron stove he was using to boil it in sulphur, and bingo! It was perfect. Without that invention w

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by PPH (736903)

        Look at vulcanized rubber for example, it was a complete accident. Goodyear had the basics in place, but it wasn't until he accidentally dropped some of it on the iron stove he was using to boil it in sulphur, and bingo!

        But that discovery was limited in that it could only find things involving a hot stove and a piece of rubber. Astronomers have to search everywhere for evidence to support their research.

        Imagine what might have been growing in the refrigerator that your Goodyear scientist missed by not looking there as well.

  • by mgrivich (1015787) on Friday January 01, 2010 @01:32PM (#30614920)
    Chance favors the prepared mind. -- Louis Pasteur
    • by Nutria (679911)

      Ah, what a succinct expression of my thought when reading this headline, You've got to be competent to take advantage of serendipity!.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by jschen (1249578)
      Exactly. It's not that those guys got lucky. It's that they followed up on what exactly was interesting about what they observed.
    • I beg to differ.
      How can chance, any truly random event, favor anyone ?
      I have always wondered how odd little quote was ascribed to Loius Pasteur, I doubt that he meant it as it was translated.

      Successful discovery, may indeed favor a knowledgeable and persistent observer.

      Those ready, willing and able to say "That's Odd" because their preparedness allows them to know why some event seems anomalous...
      Whereas other other, perhaps less knowledgable or persistent (or both), may fail to see an anomaly in the data a

    • The harder I work, the luckier I get. --Samuel Goldwyn

  • by panthroman (1415081) on Friday January 01, 2010 @01:34PM (#30614932) Homepage

    Maybe important findings get publicity and "breakthrough!" status only if they're somewhat surprising? If folks chip away at a problem for 20 years, even if the result is the same as waiting 19 years and then having a eureka discovery, is it still called a breakthrough?

    • by insufflate10mg (1711356) on Friday January 01, 2010 @02:37PM (#30615248)
      I believe you're a bit off track. Breakthrough status is given to an achievement or accomplishment resulting in a relatively large number of newly opened doors. These doors lead even further down the path of progress in the field. As you chip away at a problem, you slowly open up various doors and make progress towards an ultimate objective. Usually, a surprising discovery is considered a breakthrough simply because the scientists involved weren't slowly opening doors, the surprise instantly opened them up. Simply put, yes, usually milestones referred to as "breakthroughs" are just surprising discoveries, but if a general cure for cancer were discovered today it would also be considered a "breakthrough" despite decades of research prior to it.

      First post ever, finally took the leap after two years worth of lurking.
  • by Espen (96293) on Friday January 01, 2010 @01:38PM (#30614954)

    Prof. Andy Fabian's (of the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge and president of the Royal Astronomical Society) entertaining lecture on this very topic, entitled Serendipity's Guide to the Galaxy is available on-line in a range of formats. [cam.ac.uk]. Enjoy!

  • Meh (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Futile Rhetoric (1105323) on Friday January 01, 2010 @01:52PM (#30615022)

    There are so many things going on out there that you are likely to stumble upon something that in hindsight appears serendipitous. You may have won a lottery, but since you have tickets to million different ones, it's not that amazing really.

    • There are so many things going on out there that you are likely to stumble upon something that in hindsight appears serendipitous. You may have won a lottery, but since you have tickets to million different ones, it's not that amazing really.

      Did BadAnalogyGuy change his name?

  • Not my definition of "often"

    This sort of pop-sci is really insulting to the huge number of dedicated scientists and technicians who spend their whole lives carefully taking measurements, building and proving (or disproving) theories, based on painstaking work. Even worse is that it makes it harder for people to get grants if the bodies holding the purse strings (or the public who's money it eventually is) thinks it's basically a lottery.

    • Those discoveries are by "the huge number of dedicated scientists and technicians who spend their whole lives carefully taking measurements, building and proving (or disproving) theories, based on painstaking work". They just are not always the expected discoveries. The giant 1859 solar flare Richard Carrington and Richard Hodgson was seen by both of them because they were - watching. Nevertheless it was serendipity, not only that they were watching but (from the preserved ice record) that the flare even

  • ...you must be good first.

  • by Tablizer (95088) on Friday January 01, 2010 @02:56PM (#30615352) Homepage Journal

    the first instrument wasn't actually intended to be [an astronomic] telescope at all; instead, it was a spyglass that was expected to find use as an instrument of war.

    War, yeah right. More likely Galileo wanted to peep at the neighbor's bosomy daughter. Porn drove new tech back then also.
         

  • ... on a million telescopes will eventually catalog all the observable wonders of the universe
  • Uranus and a Asteroid does not sound to me like KEY or OFTEN...

  • Omnipitidipity, to coin a fnord.

If I'd known computer science was going to be like this, I'd never have given up being a rock 'n' roll star. -- G. Hirst

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