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I’ve always thought an anthology of anecdotes pertaining to the serendipitous discoveries of scientists would make a really interesting book.  I think most, and probably all, scientists have, at some point in their careers,  stumbled upon an unexpected discovery by means of happy chance or fortuitous accident.

My own serendipitous moment occurred in June of 2001 in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where I was looking for fossil brachiopods in the Middle Cambrian Deadwood Formation.

Granite outcrops in the Black Hills

I had been combing the Black Hills for a week, ferreting out and examining outcrops of the Deadwood, and having very little success.  Time was running out and I was getting desperate.  I had begun my doctoral research by by studying fossils from drill cores of the Deadwood Formation from the subsurface of Saskatchewan and Alberta, and it was a good start, but I needed a more substantial collection that was fully representative of this expansive formation.  The Deadwood crops out extensively at the surface only in South Dakota and Montana, so that is where I needed to find my pot of gold.  But so far, the end of the rainbow had eluded my grasp.  Finally, it was time to leave.  I had agreed to meet a colleague from Europe who was doing fieldwork in Wyoming and so I headed west along highway 16 out of the town of Custer feeling a little sullen, and more than a little anxious, about my defeat.  Shortly before reaching the Wyoming border I decided, on the spur of the moment, to turn off the highway and onto a forest road.  Why?  I had already explored hundreds of kilometres of such forest roads in the past week – what made this one special?  Desperation and stubbornness.

As it turned out, that irrational gambit payed off.  Big time.  Along that forest road, at a place called Pole Creek, I found a thirty-six-metre high cliff containing exactly the type of lithology I was looking for, but had so far found only in scrappy, barren road cuts less than one-metre thick.  This was it; I could feel it.

Outcrop at Pole Creek

Jackpot - the outcrop at Pole Creek

I scrambled up the cliff, examining the rock carefully through my hand-lens.  Sure enough, I saw tiny fragments of shiny calcium phosphate in the limestone – the remains of brachiopod shells.  After carefully measuring and describing the cliff face I collected rock samples at one-metre intervals.  It would take months of preparation in the acid lab to extract the fossils and determine the diversity of the fauna, but I had a feeling that I’d found my pot of gold.  I don’t think I can describe the giddy feeling of excitement and relief that I felt that day.  I think it must have been similar to what a gambler who has just rolled a hard six at the craps table must feel.  It was one of my best days ever.

As it turned out, that locality was home to a more diverse and abundant brachiopod fauna than I had dared to hope.  The rocks I collected yielded  some two-thousand fossil brachiopods belonging to nearly thirty species, about ten of which had never been described before.  Some of those species formed a brand new family; the Dianabellidae, named for my wife.  There were enough specimens from this site alone to finish my thesis.  There were enough to fill a book, which in fact, they did.  I never did make it to Wyoming, and I regret missing my rendezvous, but I sure don’t regret the decision to head down Forest Road 17 that day.

Of course, I don’t mean to imply that most discoveries are made simply through sheer, dumb luck.  To quote Louis Pasteur: “chance favours the prepared mind,” which, in this case means putting one’s self in a position to make lucky discoveries.  In other words to follow your hunches and to spend a lot of time in the field.  There’s nothing quite like looking when you want to find something, even if you don’t know exactly what you are looking for.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that you are always going to find something, though; sometimes you don’t find anything at all.  And sometimes serendipity deserts you in your hour of need leaving you stranded with your heavily laden vehicle stuck in the mud in the middle-of-nowhere and sometimes gales blow all of your possessions into Lake Winnipeg and leave you stranded, once again, in the middle of nowhere because its too stormy for your charter-plane to come pick you up (hence the subtitle of this essay)- but those are stories for another time.  Generally, if you spend enough time in the field, you’re bound to find something because as my favourite cartoonist, Bill Waterson, put it: “There’s treasure everywhere!”

Now, in days of yore, scientists were, almost exclusively, gentlemen of leisure; unlike most of us today, they were independently wealthy and largely able to fund their own research.  Today we rely upon research grants to get out into the field and let serendipity run its course.  Unfortunately to get those grants we need to justify the research by writing up a detailed description of what, exactly, you plan to do; what, exactly, you expect to find; and why, exactly, this is important to the world.

The only honest answer to these questions is: “I’ll let you know when I’m done.” Of course an answer like this is unlikely to be rewarded with funding, so we need to engage in some really interesting creative writing when filling out those grant proposals.  Usually this means you need find some way to link your research to whatever is the hot-topic of the day.  These days, all you need to do is work the words “climate change” into your proposal and you’re good to go.  Unfortunately if you are unable, or unwilling, to prostitute yourself in this way, finding funding gets a bit trickier.

In last week’s post I cited some examples of how we are are doing a poor job of teaching science.  The entire funding process another example.  Funding-agencies often consist of people who don’t truly understand how science is done.  They are like consumers wanting good value for their money and they want to know upfront what they are buying.  Unfortunately science doesn’t work that way, and the funding process puts the cart before the horse.

Charles Darwin was just such a gentleman of leisure that I mentioned earlier, but what if he lived today and his participation in the Beagle expedition had been contingent upon a successful grant application.  The proposal might have sounded something like this: “I plan to sail around the world for five years collecting plants, animals, fossils, and rocks and learning about stuff.”  His own father, a respected physician, was nearly apoplectic when he found out, and was completely against Charles wandering off and wasting five years of his life.  How do you think a funding agency might have responded?

Because, of course, Darwin did not hop out of bed one morning and think: “What a lovely day; I think I’ll discover the process by which evolution occurs in nature.” Rather, he seized at a chance for exploration when he was offered the position of companion to HMS Beagle’s captain, Robert Fitzroy.  The Theory of Natural Selection, one of the most profound and paradigm-shattering theories in humanity’s history, was the product of twenty years that Darwin subsequently spent studying the specimens he had collected during the voyage.  And it was all due to chance and Darwin’s readiness to capitalize upon it.

If the Beagle expedition were taking place today, Darwin would likely not be able to participate – he’d never get the funding.

Fortunately, earth-breaking (or in some cases bedrock-shattering) discoveries are being made on a frequent basis, despite the stumbling-block of funding.  Here in Manitoba there are no less than two new soft-bodied-fossil localities that are forcing us to rethink what we know about earth’s ancient life.  You can read some excellent accounts of these projects, written by lead-researcher Graham Young here:

The discovery of these phenomenal sites is due, in no small part to…you guessed it…serendipity.

Long-forgotten Lore

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