Made You Think Podcast

Aug 7, 2018
The Power of Serendipity. Happy Accidents by Morton A Meyers
Part of

“Discovery requires serendipity but serendipity is not a chance event alone. It is a process in which a chance of event is seized upon by a creative person who chooses to pay attention to the event, unravel its mystery and find a proper application for it.”

In this episode of Made You Think, Neil and Nat discuss Happy Accidents by Morton A Meyers. In this book we look at the serendipity of so many scientific discoveries and the author suggests how we can foster these chance happenings to make giant leaps in research and discovery.

“Penetrating intelligence, keen perception, and sound judgment — is essential to serendipity.

The men and women who seized on lucky accidents that happened to them were anything but mindless. In fact, their minds typically had special qualities that enabled them to break out of established paradigms.”

We cover a wide range of topics, including:

  • Penicillin, Petri dishes and Moldy Mary
  • The impact of freedom on research
  • Tangents on Private Schools, Social Media & Conspiracy Theories
  • Modern Diets, Drugs and Toxins turned into cures
  • Self experimentation, Ostracism and changing Medical opinions
  • A possible special kayaking retreat for supporters

And much more. Please enjoy, and be sure to grab a copy of Happy Accidents by Morton A Meyers!

Links from the Episode

Mentioned in the show

Books mentioned

People mentioned

Show Topics

00:26 – The book is fun to read, light, enjoyable, easy going. An exploration of scientific discovery and progress and how consistently it is influenced and driven by the role of Serendipity. A case opposite or complementary to the Scientific Method. Serendipity defined as a combination of accidents and sagacity.

05:05 – Not all discoveries are immediately realized or understood. Winston Churchill – “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened”. Penicillin and LSD examples. The dangers of being dogmatic without leaving room for the unexpected.

06:53 – Central theme of the book–How do you foster that serendipitous mindset? Nassim Taleb says that serendipity comes from chance encounters, like a cocktail party. The potential gain from a chance encounter is worth the effort of stepping outside your comfort zone.

07:42 – Trying to harness serendipity for your own benefit. Serendipity through disorder and randomness. Investigating how scientists can foster serendipity in their lab work and how academia and education and research grants, peer review could change because of that.

09:41 – Normal vs revolutionary science, Meyers is dismissive of puzzle solving. Normal science is making incremental improvements on existing knowledge, whereas serendipity fosters revolutionary discoveries as they come from a change in the ordinary methods.

10:51 – Two stages to serendipity. You need something unusual to happen and you have to recognize it to take advantage of it too.

11:21 – Innovation departments rarely come up with paradigm-shifting ideas and products. Need a certain mindset to make the most of these opportunities. Reason, intuition and imagination. Too much experience in a field can cloud your judgement on new ideas.

13:51 – The book is primarily about serendipity in medicine and science but it can be applied to most fields. Breaking out of the norm and finding inspiration for innovation in other industries. Looking at magazines to apply to blog copywriting.

15:33 – “Analogical thinking has certainly been a cornerstone of science.” Another theme in the book is looking for one thing but ending up on a totally different path. All of the people making discoveries seemed to have a level of independence in their research to follow a new path when it interests them. The narrative fallacy involved in serendipitous scientific discovery or startups growth.

17:40 – Alexander Fleming and discovery of Penicillin as anti-bacterial.  Fleming said that if he was working on a research team at the time it would have been ignored as it wasn’t what he was working on. Being free allows you to pursue these anomalies.

19:04 – Darwin and the finches in the Galapagos. Being told to go and study something brings different results than if you’re free to follow your own curiosity. The constraints of research impose harmful limits on discoveries.

19:54 – Structure of the book is Introduction of the premise, 30+ chapters of examples and the conclusion. Myers suggests at the end of the book that the structure for scientific research and funding is counter to the ability for these serendipitous events to happen.

20:50 – More on Fleming and Penicillin. Odds of it happening were astronomically low. He was away for two weeks and on returning and viewing his petri dishes on his desk discovered an anti-bacterial zone around the mold. It wasn’t until 7 years later that another researcher realized what he had found.

23:09 – For Fleming it took a number of environmental factors that allowed Penicillin to be discovered at all: heat, location, time. Penicillin wasn’t originally pitched as a drug, originally suggested as a way to isolate bacterial colonies. Then there was the huge scale up and production process of the drug. Peoria (IL), the role of corn syrup, and the mold discovered by chance.

29:00 – Bonus Material Discussion, Aquatic Apes, Patreon, future episode ideas.

29:52 – Causes of ulcers, used to be thought of as stress and spicy food. Discovery that it is caused by bacteria in 1981. Marshall ran an experiment on himself to take the bacteria, give himself ulcers and cure himself with antibiotics. Pharmaceutical industry had a strong incentive to not prove this as the cause, current drugs of acid inhibitors were reaching sales of $6 Billion dollars in 1992.

35:04 – Pharma companies lobbying to decrease acceptable cholesterol ranges to induce more people into treatments. Changing opinions of statins within last 10 years. Effects of low cholesterol on longevity, links to all-cause mortality. Reducing cholesterol and precursors to creating testosterone in diet has lead to a reduction in testosterone and erectile dysfunction requiring a need for Viagra.

39:59 – What are we currently doing in society now that we will look back on and question in the future? Possible future problems associated with over consumption of social media. Mental and physical health complaints are unknown.

41:53 – Pull away in society from open sharing, moving towards private communities. Effectiveness of diets, feeling good vs having long term health benefits. Benefits of adopting a new diet may be equal to reducing other harmful choices – like stopping drinking for a month. The changing conventions of meal-times, quality of dog food, college debt.

47:12 – Tangent. Education and the need to change the K through 12 program instead of starting with College reform. The benefits of private vs public school. Mixing with different socioeconomic backgrounds, expense of private school. Both build very different sets of social and academic skills. Bay Area dystopia, where citizens pay lots in taxes that go into public schools, but parents end choosing private ones.

55:53 – Chemical weapons, World Wars and the changing use of toxins into cures. Bombing a ship leading to the first chemo treatments for cancer. North Korea and the development of nuclear tech (more info in the Bonus material). Google health trends being able to predict health outbreaks based on search volume. Sex hormones and noticing the change of tumors in animals after castration.

01:07:55 – Consequences of controversial testing on wartime prisoners that have given us useful data. Study of African-American men with syphilis, they were told they were having free medical treatment but they were mislead and were being studied for the untreated effects of syphilis over 40 years. Possibilities of current testing on prisoners or other conspiracies.

01:11:52 – History of Thalidomide being marketed as a sedative and pain management. Widely distributed before it was realized it had the side effect of severely inhibiting fetal development. U.S avoided this because the FDA already setup due to a drug being administered alongside Diethyl Glycol which was toxic, killing over 100 children. Testing required before products could be marketed. Thalidomide now used as an anti-cancer drug as it inhibits new blood vessel growth.

01:15:05 – Acne treatments and the imbalanced side-effects on fertility. Use of cleanser on the face strips natural oils. Use of antibiotics for acne which causes destruction of the microbiome. Latex gloves that may transmit more bacteria than your hands. Effects of steroids and keto on curing eczema. Nat not using shampoo even after a Spartan race. Body naturally cleansing.

01:21:06 – Tangents, aquatic apes, blockchain, negative reviews.

01:21:59 – Heart chapter and testing of catheterization. Self-experimentation and the need to prove theories. Ostracism and dangerous procedures.

01:24:44 – Viagra, originally for treating angina, it was found that this medication increased blood flow and became a cure for impotence – renamed to erectile dysfunction. Self-experimentation on erectile dysfunction.

“The annual scientific meeting of the American Urologic Association is usually a pretty staid Affair but one meeting has entered the annals of folklore in the early 1980s. During the course of his lecture on the effectiveness of injecting substances directly into the penis to increase blood flow one urologist announced that he had performed such injections on himself only an hour earlier. Stepping from behind the lectern and he dropped his trousers and proudly demonstrated to the audience his own erect manhood. Urologists who attended this meeting still shake their heads at the memory.”

01:28:00 – The power of names and the words used, like pro-life and pro-choice. How you phrase something changes the impact. Pharmaceuticals changing the names of conditions to promote sales of new drugs. Sales of Viagra were $780 Million in the first 9 months of 1998.

01:30:02 – 1% of women take Viagra to increase arousal and sensation and orgasm strength. Netflix’s biggest competitor is sleep, Viagra’s biggest competitor is death.

01:31:48 – Cholesterol testing on rabbits. Cholesterol data seems outdated with the book being 11 years old. Comparison of Chinese soldiers and lifestyle and diet. Lack of nutrition education in Doctors, mostly educated by pharmaceutical companies. People seem to want to take a pill rather than change their lifestyle or diet and doctors have lack of trust in the patient that they will try to improve their own situation.

01:38:07 – Psychiatric stuff. Hoffman discovering LSD by accidentally pouring it over his skin. LSD microdosing experiences.

01:42:40 – Tangents on kayaking, LSD microdosing and the Made You Think – Patreon $1000 Tier.

01:43:06 – Conclusion. Modern sciences are antithetical to the process of serendipity and how our institutions penalize our ability to take advantage of it. Government contracts and grants impose constraints. If you’re getting money to research a specific topic you will be disincentivized from exploring things that deviates. If you’re a free agent, then you can run down those rabbit holes.

01:44:31 – Peer reviews. Most businesses are judged by their customers but academia is judged solely by their peers. Ostracism as a consequence of investigating fringe theories. Direct to consumer advertising for drugs. Diseases and disorders that seems to be created and renamed just to increase drug sales. Long terms effects of drugs.

01:52:19 – On Patreon you get all kinds of goodies. Bonus materials, detailed notes for each episode and book highlights. You get a space to discuss the show with both of us. You can also join for our monthly live Hangouts. If you join the $1000 a month tier you can join us for a major excursion – Made You Trip!

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