Taking the Biggest Risk

Source: Scientific American, Dec 2013

… a stubborn sea of scientific possibilities will yield its secrets only to the one who casts her net the widest, takes the biggest risks, makes the most unlikely and indirect connections, pursues a path of discovery for the sheer pleasure of it. Even from a strictly practical viewpoint, you encourage pure research because you want to maximize the probability of a hit in the face of uncertainty about the landscape of facts.

the example of half a dozen scientists including Maxwell, Faraday, Gauss, Ehrlich and Einstein whose passionate tinkering with science and mathematics led to pioneering applications in industry, medicine and transportation. Each of these scientists was pursuing research for its own sake, free of concerns regarding future application.

Paul Ehrlich’s case is especially instructive. Ehrlich who is the father of both modern antibiotic research and drug discovery was asked by his supervisor, Wilhelm von Waldeyer, why he spent so much time tinkering aimlessly with bacterial broths and petri dishes; Ehrlich simply replied, “Ich probiere”, which can be loosely translated to “ I am just fooling around”. Waldeyer wisely left him to fool around, and Ehrlich ended up suggesting the function of protein receptors for drugs and discovering Salvarsan, the first remedy for the scourge of syphilis.

Abraham Flexner, the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study and a passionate proponent of pure curiosity (Image: IAS)

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