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The Key To Astronomy Has Often Been Serendipity

ScuttleMonkey posted more than 4 years ago | from the louis-pasteur-had-it-right dept.

Science 51

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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51 comments

Famous Herschell Quote (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30614788)

"Shit Happens"

Liquid metallic hydrogen (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30614808)

Well, I read about this stuff [wikipedia.org] in an astronomy magazine recently. Had never heard of it. I couldn't get google to feed me the answer to the question the magazine left me with, though. How much of the universe's hydrogen is liquid metallic? Does it occur in stars? If so, which types? Or is it just in gas giants?

Someone has to say it (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30614810)

"Herschell was looking for faint stars when he happened across... ...Uranus"

That was lucky! On the contrary...

This is surprising? (4, Interesting)

hedwards (940851) | more than 4 years ago | (#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.

Re:This is surprising? (5, Insightful)

garg0yle (208225) | more than 4 years ago | (#30614878)

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

Re:This is surprising? (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#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.

Re:This is surprising? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30614912)

So basically science is a macro manifestation of the quantum uncertainty principle? Either you're lucky and make a discovery or not.

Re:This is surprising? (5, Insightful)

samkass (174571) | more than 4 years ago | (#30614924)

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.)

Re:This is surprising? (1)

khallow (566160) | more than 4 years ago | (#30616640)

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.

Re:This is surprising? (1)

shipbrick (929823) | more than 4 years ago | (#30618158)

"I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it." - Thomas Jefferson

Re:This is surprising? (1)

Foobar of Borg (690622) | more than 4 years ago | (#30619196)

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

Re:This is surprising? (4, Insightful)

Z00L00K (682162) | more than 4 years ago | (#30615006)

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)

Re:This is surprising? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30615286)

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)

If people had realized this one simple fact 3000 years ago, we'd have populated our entire local group by now.

Re:This is surprising? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30616824)

In addition to luck you must also have a flexible mind. This to be able to interpret the unexpected data.

This. There's a growing trend in astronomy to separate the astronomers who analyse the data from the engineers who build the telescope. This is more efficient, because it means that an astronomer can use information from any telescope with equal ease - but my supervisor is fond of pointing out that many historical discoveries were made only because an astronomer was familiar enough with their telescope to tell the difference between some noise caused by some quirk of the instrument, and a startling new discovery.

Re:This is surprising? (1)

DurendalMac (736637) | more than 4 years ago | (#30615400)

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.

Re:This is surprising? (1)

RockDoctor (15477) | more than 4 years ago | (#30627790)

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 observational astronomy last year (www.open.ac.uk , look for course SXR208. £700-odd.) using student grade telescopes of the "serious amateur" range (14" and 16" SCTs ; including domes around £15,000 per instrument) and one of the first things that we learned to do was to manage our time at the telescope. you need to plan what your experiment is, work out a list of possible targets, decide which ones are going to be observable at all tonight, when each will be in the "horizon murk", when each will be in the scope's "dead zone" (where it can't steer without colliding the detector rack against the mount) ... one to two hour's work per night before you even start trying to get dark-adapted. "Screwing around", yeah right.

A (possibly) confusing factor is that most observatories have some telescope time assigned for "director's discretionary time" (the terms vary between observatories). It's intended for the director's (and staff's) "pet projects", because they'd find some way of getting telescope time regardless, so you might as well document it and ensure that the time is used well. It's also used for "targets of opportunity", such as when a transient phenomenon is reported such as a supernova - short time slots are included between programmed activities to allow, for example, slewing onto an appropriate target and spending 20 minutes getting a spectrum with a light bucket ("huge telescope").

But "screwing around" ... don't make me laugh.

More seriously, the project to understand the mass-distribution of galaxies, and galaxy clusters, goes back to IIRC the late 1930s when people first acquired the ability (with newer "light buckets" and better photographic emulsions) to take spectra of individual stars in external galaxies. As the first results came in, one star at a time, each one taking months of work, it just wasn't clear what was going on. But these perplexing results were enough to encourage people to stick with the work. The first comprehensive result, unsurprisingly, was for the Andromeda galaxy (M31) in 1970 (see the Wikipedia article for the reference), and to indicate the acceleration of techniques (and of "light buckets") in 1980 the same authors had 21 galaxies to work with.

Given that, the "screwing around" that you refer to lasted for over 40 years before it became a major research project, and a real "problem" for astronomy (several people had already got their PhDs working on the problem though, simply by demonstrating that there is a problem).
(If you consider it to be a "problem" ; at the moment the problem is only that there is gravitating mass out there which has a distribution we can't explain, and which doesn't glow as strongly as the "normal" materials that we're familiar with. It only becomes a serious problem if you're hubristic enough to think that we know all that there is to know about all the different types of matter. As a keen amateur astronomer and a scientist, I can't think of anyone who I know who seriously thinks that our knowledge is that comprehensive.)

They saw some unexpected gravitational lensing and went from there.

Gravitational lensing was news, moderately big news, when I was an undergraduate in the mid-1980s. At the same time, the "galactic rotation curve problem" was a well-known, solidly established problem in the literature. You need to rearrange your cart and horse so that you might get horse shit on your cart, not horse puke. (Unless you've got a horse with heavily modified plumbing.)

(Sorry if you were trying to make a joke - I really enjoyed the observatory work, despite it being really, really hard work. "Screwing around" is denigrating the work of professional astronomers.)

Re:This is surprising? (1)

MillionthMonkey (240664) | more than 4 years ago | (#30615980)

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 to celebrate. He dropped dead and France banned the procedure in 1670 followed by Britain and the Vatican, and it was quite some time before somebody tried again.

Serendipity != Luck (1)

Mutatis Mutandis (921530) | more than 4 years ago | (#30616324)

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 interpretation is crucial, because this is what protects good scientists from the cognitive dissonance that makes other close their eyes for the unexpected. Without interpretation, a surprising observation is just that; it may be a coincidence or an experimental error, and is often thrown out.

The most famous example is Alfred Wegener and his theory of continental drift. Mainstream science has been criticised a lot for its scepticism about Wegener's ideas, but Wegener failed to propose a credible mechanism for the motion of the continents -- the concept of plate tectonics arrived fifty years later. Without an explanation, the observation didn't convince, and Wegener was long dead when it was recognized that his intuitive idea had been right.

The reverse is also true, there is a real danger in theory without experimental observation. This is illustrated by the case of the mysterious "N-Rays" of a patriotic French scientist, who "discovered" them as a counterweight to the German Roentgen's discovery of X-Rays. The N-rays did not exist, but an otherwise very capable scientist also proved highly capable of seeing just what he wanted to see.

Re:This is surprising? (1)

jayme0227 (1558821) | more than 4 years ago | (#30619308)

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.

Re:This is surprising? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30620302)

It's not "luck" that contributes to such breakthroughs - it's the capacity to recognise the significance of the unexpected. Millions of us bump into the potentially amazing every day and fail to notice. The ability to see a bit further is what makes a real scientist stand out from the mass. It's a rare talent, and mostly unpopular in the research community, particularly when exhibited by juniors in the hierarchy.

The Sky is Big (2, Insightful)

PPH (736903) | more than 4 years ago | (#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:The Sky is Big (2, Informative)

Bigjeff5 (1143585) | more than 4 years ago | (#30615380)

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 we would not have rubber today, as natural rubber only maintains its elasticity under a small range of temperatures. The whole world had given up except for Goodyear (and I'm sure a couple others like him), but it was a pure accident that completed the discovery. And even then nobody believed him. Heh, such is science and discovery.

Re:The Sky is Big (2, Interesting)

PPH (736903) | more than 4 years ago | (#30618566)

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.

In the fields of observation (5, Insightful)

mgrivich (1015787) | more than 4 years ago | (#30614920)

Chance favors the prepared mind. -- Louis Pasteur

Re:In the fields of observation (1)

Nutria (679911) | more than 4 years ago | (#30614988)

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

Re:In the fields of observation (2, Insightful)

jschen (1249578) | more than 4 years ago | (#30615332)

Exactly. It's not that those guys got lucky. It's that they followed up on what exactly was interesting about what they observed.

Re:In the fields of observation (1)

strangedays (129383) | more than 4 years ago | (#30615616)

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 and ignore the result.

It's human nature to ascribe the success of others to chance, especially when it reflects poorly on our own lack of knowledge and efforts.

the surprise is what defines a "breakthrough" (3, Interesting)

panthroman (1415081) | more than 4 years ago | (#30614932)

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?

Re:the surprise is what defines a "breakthrough" (4, Insightful)

insufflate10mg (1711356) | more than 4 years ago | (#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.

Re:the surprise is what defines a "breakthrough" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30618768)

First post ever, finally took the leap after two years worth of lurking.

We understand 'first post' a little differently around here, so you got me confused there for a few seconds ;-)

Serendipity's Guide to the Galaxy (3, Informative)

Espen (96293) | more than 4 years ago | (#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 (2, Interesting)

Futile Rhetoric (1105323) | more than 4 years ago | (#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.

Re:Meh (1)

IndustrialComplex (975015) | more than 4 years ago | (#30615544)

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?

serendipity- such a nice word ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30615028)

while there are exceptions, luck is mostly
a biproduct of being "good". Everyone technical
knows this: the posted nes item was written
as much as an "attention-getter"

Herschel writing in 1809: (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30615136)

"It has generally been supposed that it was a lucky accident which brought this star [Uranus] into my view; this is an evident mistake. In the regular manner I examined every star of the heavens, not only of that magnitude but many far inferior, it was that night its turn to be discovered. ... Had business prevented me that evening, I must have found it the next."

A dozen lucky breaks in 400 years? (1)

petes_PoV (912422) | more than 4 years ago | (#30615150)

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.

Re:A dozen lucky breaks in 400 years? (1)

Velox_SwiftFox (57902) | more than 4 years ago | (#30615216)

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 occurred after telescopes were invented.

He happened across the planet Uranus? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30615218)

Herschell was looking for faint stars when he happened across the planet Uranus

Wow, I didn't know Herschell was from another planet!

"better to be lucky than good" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30615308)

You got to be good to see that it's not a star but a planet.

No-one is so good that he can predict exactly where the next as-of-yet-unknown thing will be found.

Also, the discovery of yet another planet (Uranus) is of whole different class than the discovery of something that no-one had any idea was there (cosmic background radiation).

Great Excuse (4, Funny)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 4 years ago | (#30615352)

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.
     

isn't discovery surprising... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#30615396)

... by definition? (scientific or not)

Now give it some more emphasis by saying "accidental" instead of "surprising"

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