The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not «Eureka!» (I found it!) but «That’s funny …»
A while ago, I did read «Irresistible» by Alter (2017). It’s well written, covers a lot of reasons why social media are … fucking with our lives (my words, not his). It also has the following two passages on serendipity in research which are worth sharing:
#1 Great discoveries via tinkering and revolutionizing (and the value of a great team)
Great scientists make their discoveries using two distinct approaches: tinkering and revolutionizing. Tinkering slowly wears down a problem, like water erodes rock, whereas in revolutions, a great thinker sees what no one else can. If the engineer Peter Milner was a tinkerer, the psychologist James Olds was a revolutionary. Together they made a superb team. In the early 1950s, in a small basement lab filled with caged rats and electrical equipment at Montreal’s McGill University, Olds and Milner ran one of the most famous addiction experiments of all time. What made the experiment so remarkable was that it wasn’t actually designed to reshape our understanding of addiction.
In fact, it might have gone unnoticed if Olds had done his job properly.
Olds and Milner met at Montreal’s McGill University in the early 1950s. In many ways they were opposites. Milner’s biggest strength was his technical know-how. He knew all there was to know about rat brains and electrical currents. Olds, on the other hand, lacked experience but overflowed with big ideas. Young researchers floated in and out of Olds’ lab, drawn to his flair and talent for spotting the next big thing. Bob Wurtz, Olds’ first graduate student in the late 1950s, knew Olds and Milner well. According to Wurtz, “Olds didn’t know the front of the rat from the back of the rat, and Milner’s first job was to educate Olds on rat physiology.” But what Olds lacked in technical prowess, he more than made up for with brio and vision. “Jim was a very aggressive scientist,” says Wurtz. “He believed in serendipity if you see something interesting, you drop everything else. Whenever he and Milner stumbled on something newsworthy, Jim would” deal with the media while Milner continued working in the lab.”
Gary Aston-Jones, who also studied with Olds, remembered him the same way. “Olds was focused on big questions. He was always more conceptually driven than technically driven. When we were trying to understand how a fruit fly could learn about the world, Olds dropped to his hands and knees, crawled around on the floor, and pretended to be a fly.” Milner would never have approached the problem that way. Aryeh Routtenberg, a third student who worked with Olds, explained that “Milner was sort of like the other face of Olds. He was quiet, humble, and self-effacing, while Olds would proclaim ‘we’ve made a big discovery!'”
For decades, experts had assumed that drug addicts laudanum lushes, poppy tea drinkers, and opiate addicts—were predisposed to the condition, somehow wired incorrectly. Olds and Milner were some of the first researchers to turn that idea on its head—to suggest that, perhaps, under the right circumstances, we could all become addicts.
#2 Finding out about addiction with a rat and a bent wire
Olds and Milner were trying to show that rats would run to the far end of their cages whenever an electric current zapped their tiny brains. The researchers implanted a small probe, which delivered a burst of electric current to each rat’s brain when the rat pressed a metal bar. To their surprise, instead of retreating, Rat No. 34 stubbornly scampered across his cage and pressed the bar over and over again. Rather than fearing the shocks as many other rats had done earlier, this rat hunted them down. The experimenters looked on as Rat No. 34 pushed the bar more than seven thousand times in twelve hours: once every five seconds without rest. Like an ultramarathon runner who deliriously refuses to stop for sustenance, the rat ignored a small trough of water and a tray of pellets. Sadly, he had eyes only for the bar. Twelve hours after the experiment began, Rat No. 34 was dead from exhaustion.
At first, Olds and Milner were confused. If every other rat avoided the shocks, why would Rat No. 34 do the opposite? Perhaps there was something wrong with his brain. Milner was ready to try the experiment with a different rat when Olds made a bold suggestion. Olds had once crawled around to imagine life as a fruit fly, and now he tried his hand at reading the mind of a rat. Considering Rat No. 34’s behavior carefully, he became convinced that the rat was enjoying the shocks. It wasn’t that he was seeking out pain, but rather that the shocks felt good. “The genius of Jim Olds was that he was open-minded enough and crazy enough to think that the animal liked being shocked,” Aston-Jones said. “At the time, no one imagined that electrical stimulation in the brain could be pleasurable, but Olds was crazy enough to think the animal was having a good time.”
So Olds investigated. He removed the probe from the rat’s brain and noticed that it was bent. “Olds had been aiming for the mid-brain, but the probe bent into the rat’s septum,” says Aston-Jones. A fraction of an inch made all the difference between delight and discomfort. Olds took to calling this area of the brain the “pleasure center,” a simplistic name that nonetheless captures the euphoria that rats—and dogs, goats, monkeys, and even people—feel when the area is stimulated. Some years later, when neuroscientist Robert Heath inserted an electrode into a depressed woman’s pleasure center, she began to giggle. He asked why she was laughing, and though she couldn’t offer an explanation, she told him that she felt happy for the first time in as long as she could remember. As soon as Heath removed the probe, the patient’s smile disappeared. She was depressed again—and worse, she now knew what it felt like to be happy. She wanted more than anything for the probe to remain implanted, delivering regular shocks like a small hedonic pacemaker. Like Olds and Milner before him, Heath had shown how addictive euphoria could be.
And that’s a huge part of what research is about. The worthwhile kind, i.e. the non-incremental-can-I-get-a-research-money-cookie kind.
Reference: Alter, A. (2017). Irresistible. The rise of addictive technology and the business of keeping us hooked. Penguin Books.