Riding the rollercoaster of scientific discovery

Science is all about ideas and problem solving and that’s why we love it. But it’s also about lots of hard work to get reproducible results and getting your paper through the potentially gut-wrenching peer-review process.

It’s exhilarating and demoralizing in equal measures although the fewer highs far outweigh the many lows. Some researchers may choose to take everything in their stride but I chose to ride that rollercoaster.

This happened recently for example. I was stuck on a problem that prevented the research from progressing to the next stage. It would be ground-breaking if I could crack this problem and open up a whole new avenue of inquiry. I was motivated.

A great idea did come to me at about 3 o’clock one morning, the Hour of Greatest Wisdom, although the incomprehensible gibberish that I found in my notebook the next morning suggested that this was probably not a real solution.

Then I was explaining my problem to an indulgent non-expert who let me go on and on about the problem. I’m assuming they let me. They didn’t physically stop me from talking so that’s about the same, I’m sure.

In explaining the problem in simple terms, I suddenly had an idea. A clever idea. Genius, in fact. It could even lead to a promotion or, possibly, a Nobel Prize.

But an idea is never enough. It has to be proven to work and the results must be repeatable and reproducible. So I went back to the lab and tried my idea while rehearsing my Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

It seemed to work first time. I had that moment of bated breath that hovers between “Wow, it worked!” and “uh oh, can I do it again?”

I tried again and it still worked. And again. Excitement was building to glorious heights! I told everyone who would listen – or, indeed, who did not walk away quick enough – about this great idea.

Only then did I recheck my calculations. I’d missed a dilution factor, changing the status of my results from “proving I’m clever” to “no significant difference”. I slumped into the low of the “I hate science” mantra and raided the chocolate box before going back to the literature to start again.

After many more attempts, I did solve that problem. Perhaps not at a Nobel Prize level but it did allow us to move on to the next phase of the project. The lows in science can be pretty low but they are always trumped by the exhilaration of new ideas and new discoveries and, because of this, I recommend the rollercoaster ride.

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