Dr. Lewis Thomas was stumped.
A professor of Medicine at New York University during the 1950s, Thomas had been injecting enzymes into laboratory rabbits for years. Yet he continued to be amazed by the way the rabbits’ ears flopped following an injection and then mysteriously returned to normal shape.
Besides being so unusual, it was also one of the most uniform reactions he had seen in his years of laboratory research. Thomas was convinced that an important and powerful biological process was behind the flopping, but he just couldn’t put his finger on it. Running out of rabbits and being pressed to move on to other more promising research, Thomas dropped the research.
As an inquisitive scientist, Thomas found it hard to ignore the problem, and for years it continued to fester in the back of his mind. Several years later, during a routine lecture to a group of medical students, Thomas decided to demonstrate the floppy ear trick. Seeing an untreated rabbit ear and a treated rabbit ear under a microscope side by side, Thomas was immediately struck with a revelation. This breakthrough eventually led Thomas to discover the cause of rheumatoid arthritis, a serious disease, representing a major medical breakthrough.
In retrospect, comparing treated and untreated specimens seems like an obvious step for any researcher, but Thomas never thought to do it. He said, "Before, I had always been struck by the enormity of the ear flopping, so when I didn’t see something obvious, I concluded there was nothing."
Thomas's accidental discovery paved the way for many other important scientific discoveries including penicillin, radioactivity, and anesthesia, as well as inventions such as the pacemaker, the microwave oven, Velcro, Post-it Notes, Nylon, and dynamite. In all these cases, scientists and inventors made accidental discoveries while working on unrelated problems.
Serendipity is the aptitude for discovering things by accident and it can be a powerful tool for helping us solve everyday problems. Analyzing what triggered Thomas’s sudden insight, two social scientists, Bernard Barber and Renee C. Fox identified a number of factors that contributed to Thomas’s success.
These tips can help you solve your own challenges as well:
If you are struggling with a problem, drop it for a while. After ignoring his own problem for some time, Thomas returned to it and unconsciously did his experiment differently. A passage of time can provide a fresh outlook needed to generate breakthrough ideas.
If you can’t find a solution, look for new resources. Later in his research, Thomas decided to experiment with a larger pool of rabbits. Seeing a large numbers of rabbit ears flop at once, Thomas was able to identify an important pattern that he hadn’t seen before.
Do things differently. A change in technique often brings a fresh perspective that can make a solution suddenly appear. Albert Einstein famously said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
When Thomas re-ran his experiment as a student demonstration, he performed the experiment differently than he did in the lab. Doing the experiment differently exposed the cause of the flopping ears.
In Thomas’s own words, "this was the part of the story that I'm most ashamed of."
Don’t jump to conclusions. This is the most difficult part of problem solving. We all too often make assumptions that lead to a dead end. Ask new questions, confer with colleagues, and reformulate the problem.
Of course, the best advice is to be aware that accidental discoveries almost always occur when you have a good background of the problem you are trying to solve, so learn the problem well and examine it from all angles. In the words of one of history’s most famous scientists, Louis Pasteur, "Chance favors the prepared mind."