The significance of luck in scientific discoveries

Materials World magazine
1 Feb 2006

In an interview in the Guardian, Woody Allen said that he was amazed that so few people recognise the dominant role that luck plays in their lives. Napoleon certainly thought luck was important - when asked what quality he looked for in a general, he replied ‘he must be lucky'. The point I want to make below is that being lucky is more important for a scientist than it is even for the military man.

Firstly, I must point out that research scientists are attempting to make the natural world yield her secrets. It follows that, whether it is achievable or not, scientific research does have a tangible objective, which is not the case for those doing research within, say, the humanities. This was the point made by Sir Peter Medawar when commenting on Crick and Watson's celebrated discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953. He said that as great as the achievement was, the researchers did have the benefit that there existed a structure to be discovered, an advantage not shared by numerous, probably equally clever, researchers at Cambridge in non-scientific departments.

Scientists have all the luck

Scientific researchers not only start with a tangible objective, they also have the potential good luck of accidental discoveries during the course of their experiments. It so happens that when I read Allen's interview I had just completed reviews of two books about Marie Curie, and the thought had already occurred to me that the good lady, remarkable though she was, enjoyed a fantastic amount of good luck in winning a Nobel Prize for work carried out while she was a PhD student.

Firstly, she had the good fortune to choose to study ‘Becquerel rays', which had only just been discovered, so there wasn't much competition. Secondly, she was lucky to have married, and collaborated with, a world-class inventor of instruments of the type she needed to study the weak emanations of uranium. Finally, there was the good fortune that two of the decay products of uranium (later named as polonium and radium) existed within the samples they had of pitchblende, and were more radioactive than uranium, and hence readily detectable.

Accidental scientific discoveries

Thus it came about that the great atomic age was launched by the accidental discovery of X-rays by Roentgen in 1895, to be followed two years later by Becquerel accidentally discovering radioactivity. Then the Curies discovered two radioactive decay products of uranium when they were actually seeking ‘natural' radioactive elements such as uranium and thorium. Roentgen was awarded the first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901 and Becquerel shared the same Prize with the Curies two years later.

Bad luck

Of course scientists can have bad luck too. In the early 1930s, Madame Curie's daughter Irene and her husband Frederic Joliot-Curie had seen both neutrons and positrons in their experiments but failed to realise the importance of their observations. The Nobel Prizes for discovering these fundamental particles therefore went to Chadwick and Anderson respectively.

Then the Joliot-Curies' luck changed and they were awarded the 1935 Nobel Chemistry Prize for discovering artificial radioactivity. Lawrence's team at Berkeley were wild. If only they had run a Geiger counter over one of their cyclotron's targets they would have heard the tell-tale click and realised they had created a new radioactive isotope, and beaten the Joliot-Curies to the post. They didn't do this because their cyclotron and Geiger counter worked off the same switch. When the cyclotron was switched off so was the Geiger counter. Now that's what I call really bad luck, but good luck for the Joliot-Curies.


Furher information:

Woody Allen interview (the Guardian, 20 December 2005)
Biography of Marie Curie