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An Explorit "Science Bytes" article by Anne Hance (1994)

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DISCOVERY: What is it? Who does it? Why and How?

by Anne Hance (1994)

"Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought" said Albert Szent-Gyorgyi a Hungarian biochemist, who lived from 1893-1986)

A much earlier scientist, Isaac Newton, who made many important discoveries said, "To myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

Newton was born in 1642 in Lincolnshire, England. As a result of his studies, his curiosity, his careful experimentation and much thought and theorizing he discovered the composition of white light and the nature of color. He discovered that gravitational force holds the moon in orbit and he developed the binomial theorem and an early form of differential calculus and three laws of motion that form the basic principles of modern physics. Newton is claimed by many to be the greatest scientist in history.

Alexander Pope,  an 18th-century English poet. said in 1727, "Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night: God said, "Let Newton be" and all was light."

Of course, Pope is exaggerating in his poetic acknowledgement of Newton's greatness and Newton was romanticising the process of discovery in his introspective thought about his ground-breaking science.

There is no single road to discovery. Discoverers have many different motives, goals, and approaches. They take many wrong turns, travel tortuous paths, and sometimes arrive because of another's speculation or observation. Throughout history, science discoveries have involved chance and good luck, as well as focused, careful investigation. Most have relied on mental preparedness based on a background of knowledge gleaned from the work of other people. They have relied upon an ability to reflect, to make intuitive leaps of understanding, to recognize when a discovery has been made, and to comprehend its significance.

When Wilhelm Roentgen (1845-1923) discovered that X-rays could pass through human tissue and darken photographic plates, he was simply studying the electrical nature of matter and had not expected to discover a dramatic new tool for medical and other uses. During his investigations he observed the same thing that others had seen but, making an intuitive leap of understanding, recognized a fascinating discovery.

Frederick Grant Banting (1891-1941), a contemplative Canadian farm boy, wondered about many things, the changing seasons, life cycles and in particular the death from sugar diabetes of a fourteen year old friend. He continued to wonder about diabetes as he studied to become a surgeon.

On the evening of October 30, 1920, he was preparing a lecture on the relation of the pancreas to diabetes. After reading an article on a related topic he continued to turn the matter over and over in his mind and was unable to sleep. At two in the morning his thoughts crystallized. He had formulated an idea.

Seven months later, assisted by Charles Best (1899-1978), he followed a careful regimen of experiments to discover the active ingredient of pancreatic islets. He succeeded and was awarded a Nobel prize, that he shared with Macleod and Best, for the discovery of insulin (first called 'isletin'), a treatment for diabetes*.


While the course is varied, the initiation of the process of discovery is always the same and is aptly stated by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), "Men love to wonder, and that is the seed of our science."

* * * * * * * *


* The following comment on  this article was received after its publication:

" Dr. Best did not win the Nobel Prize with Dr. Banting. What happened was Banting was awarded the Nobel Prize with Prof. J.J.R. Macleod. They inturn shared their Nobel Prize money with their associates - Banting & Best, Macleod & Collip. The Nobel Prize awarded for the discovery of insulin is controversial to this day.

Sincerely, Grant Maltman, Curator, Banting Museum & Education Centre"



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