Canadian journalist and pop sociologist Malcolm Gladwell spoke Thursday to a packed house in Hewlett Auditorium about the role that serendipity plays in scientific discovery.
“The universe of things we do not know is much larger than what we do know –and more importantly, we don’t know what we don’t know,” Gladwell said, noting that scientists need to be open to accidental discoveries.
Gladwell, a writer for The New Yorker and best-selling author of several books, was the keynote speaker for “Medicine and the Muse: An Arts, Humanities and Medicine Symposium,” an event that drew more than 500 members of the Stanford community. Gladwell focused his speech on the importance of chance and risk-taking in the process of discovery.
“I was really talking about the creative process, and serendipity is such an enormous part of the creative process,” Gladwell told The Daily in an interview after the event. He said that the scientific process needs to leave room for the “beauty of serendipity” and “accidental discovery.”
Gladwell illustrated the point by explaining that such accidental scientific discoveries exist in a hierarchy, with findings that come from a misapprehension of data, like that of Christopher Columbus, lying at the bottom. At the top of this structure, Gladwell places those who, like Galileo with his telescope, rationally engineer a situation to find surprising results without any preconceptions or knowledge of what they might find.
“I think that people…who take that step into the unknown are the bravest of all scientists,” Gladwell said. “When you look through that telescope, you are completely in the dark about what you will find.”
To explain this kind of scientific process, Gladwell told a story of Synta Pharmaceuticals, a small drug company that tested a variety of chemical compounds against many different cancer strains hoping for a Galilean accidental discovery. Or, in Gladwell’s words, they were “throwing everything against a wall and seeing what sticks.”
After devoting three years and countless resources to a drug made from one of the chemical compounds that seemed to fight melanoma, the heartbroken scientists learned that the drug was ineffective.
“I find something extraordinarily meaningful and moving in Galilean serendipity,” Gladwell said. “I don’t know whether we talk enough about scientists who find the courage to look through the microscope without finding anything.”
Gladwell contrasted their strategy with the safer and more readily-funded rational drug design method, where companies work backward from the understanding of a disease. Although relying on serendipity for science is riskier, Gladwell said that funding needs to allow for a variety of strategies because “we have to learn to respect the mystery of the creative process.”
Gladwell emphasized the point that at Stanford, students have a unique opportunity for accidental discoveries.
“You have a formal structure but the point is, the creative person is someone who wanders off from that,” he said. “It has to be supplemented by these sort of flights of fancy, opening your self up to different kinds of questions. An education like here, which is rich…with the possibility for so many unexpected encounters, is a beautiful opportunity for serendipity.”