Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Finding and the recognition of finding

At the cutting edge of science, it is not uncommon to find examples of scientists who had the first glimpse of an important discovery, didn't "see" it, and ended up watching helplessly as another group announced the "real" discovery. In such cases, assigning credit unambiguously is tricky business. For those who end up on the losing side of this business, it must be heart-breaking indeed.

Those thoughts were on my mind while writing the previous post, and I was reminded of a truly gracious article in which Prof. Eiji Osawa looked back at the history of the discovery of buckminsterfullerene — C60. While the 1985 discovery was credited to Kroto et al, there were several previous studies — including one in 1970 by Osawa himself — that hinted at this then novel form of carbon.

Here's an excerpt [I blogged a while ago about Prof. Osawa's article at Materialia Indica, where you'll find several other links as well].

Let us conclude our presentation by a comment on the relative importance between the well-known two steps in the process of discovery: finding and the recognition of finding (Berson 1992). Our inevitable conclusion, after observing such a large number of missed discoveries, is that the latter is much more important and difficult than the former. A finding is usually made by chance, as in the case of the C60 peak in the mass spectrum of laser-vaporized carbon clusters (Kroto et al. 1985). Hence there is not much one can do but to resort to serendipity.

The most crucial moment comes after a finding has been made. The most desirable situation would be that the discoverers themselves recognize the relevance of their finding and explain the relations with the then accepted body of knowledge, using a language that leads others to logically understand the significance of the [discovery]. Here a number of novel qualities are required: the imagination to grasp generality on the basis of a small piece of evidence, the talent to give an appropriate name (Nickon & Silversmith 1987) and the ability to communicate well with other scientists. It is truly gratifying to realize that the authors of the 1985 Nature paper had all these attributes.


  1. pradeepkumar pi said...

    I met Prof. Osawa a month ago. Attended his lecture at IITB as well. This was before the announcement of Nobel Prize. In responding to my query on graphene, he told me to remember the history of fullerenes and nanotubes. Basically he wanted to say that one can publish a lot of articles and create a hype but when it comes to the development of a product, something else matters. Prof. Oswa was talking about "nanodiamonds" in his lecture. He said though nanodiamond has lot of potential, its very difficult to convince scientists in these days because they are busy with nanotubes and graphenes!