07 December 2009

Accidental Discoveries

A British medical researcher (and eventual Nobel Prize winner) named Edgar Douglas Adrian was doing some research involving the toad retinas. Hey, who doesn’t love experiments involving toads, eyeballs and electricity? OK, so having attached electrodes on the poor toad’s optic nerves, Dr. Adrian was surprised to hear repeated noises coming from the loudspeaker attached to an amplifier that was being fed by those electrodes. I don’t know what sort of experiment involves wiring toad eyeballs to loudspeakers, but there you go.

Anyway, the room was dark and the sounds were unexpected. Like a good scientist, Dr. Adrian set about to figure out what was causing these noises. He writes “It was not until I compared the noises with my own movements around the room that I realized I was in the field of vision of the toad’s eye and that it was signaling what I was doing.” The year was 1928, and this experience proved the presence of electricity within nerve cells.

The point of this story is that sometimes the most important discoveries come when we're looking for something else, so it's important not to be so focused on the problem you're trying to solve that you miss the problem you should be solving. As the great American philosopher Ferris Bueller once said, "Life moves pretty fast. You don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

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