Chance favors only the prepared mind, said Louis Pasteur. Indeed history is filled with stories of great discoveries through serendipity. As Douglas Osheroff said, “most advances require both insight and good fortune” in his talk about how scientific discoveries are made. Biology is a field that has a particularly interesting history involving good luck as many discoveries initially depended upon the contamination of samples including Louis Pastuer’s work on immunology and Alexander Flemming’s work on antibiotics. However, as Pasteur pointed out the opportunities granted by chance are only harvested by a prepared mind. Years of training, dedication, and even failure are necessary to prepare the mind.
I recall that Oliver Smithies, awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize for work in Phisiology/Medicine, dedicated an entire talk to the topics of chance, opportunity and planning during the 2010 conference. He stressed the subtle nature of each of these factors in his scientific career and was humble about being able to make his contribution to science. Simithies recommends that above all that you must enjoy what you do. The sentiment of humility is echoed by most respected noble laureates. Laureates recognize the place of failure in success is that it generally precedes success. Failure is not a lost cause if something can be learned from it though and this is what Nobel Laureates have done.
Intriguingly modern psychological research into failure and success has shown that those who succeed approach failure differently than those never try again and fail. One irony of life that this research has uncovered is how the Universe is entirely indifferent to our struggles, but we are not. It turns out that those who perceive themselves as successful often over attribute the origin of success to their own work while those who fail often blame their failure on outside forces. However, some Nobel Laureates seem particularly humble as if they have the innate wisdom to understand they could have been just another simple unlauded researcher contributing to science.
Nobel Laureates want to get the message to current and future generations that you must learn from failure and be prepared when chances arrive. Life, viewed as a series of coincidences, is one magnificent opportunity and this week in Lindau is one such opportunity for young researchers to connect with fellow scientists and gather knowledge from Nobel Laureates.