Eureka moments in science

I have found over the course of my 20 years in academia that there are times when scientific magic happens. These require just the right mix of colleagues, expertise, data in-hand, and time to think. You can’t force these, but you know when you are in one of them. The synergy is electric, you can’t stop thinking about the questions and how to solve them. You and your colleagues are on the same wavelength, almost reading each other’s minds but simultaneously challenging each other at every step. This kind of research chemistry is science  at its best (and also, when it is the most rewarding for those of us who do it).

Back in the spring of 2015 my lab was in the thick of one of these episodes. My then-postdoc Chris Schmitt (who is now a professor at Boston University), two of my graduate students (Tesla Monson and Marianne Brasil), and I met for hours at  a time, at least once or more like 2-3 times a week to synthesize the ~18 years of quantitative genetics I’d done on baboon dental variation, and try to figure out how to use these results to improve our understanding of the relationship between genotype and phenotype for primate dentitions. With large phenotypic data sets collected through a couple of National Science Foundation grants and from generous colleagues and published literature, we bantered back and forth. We ran more analyses than I care to remember, adjusted, and reassessed. Didn’t believe our results, tried something new. And we asked ourselves repeatedly, “what exactly are we really trying to find out, and is this analysis actually addressing that specific question?” It was exploratory research at its finest.

We ended up with a manuscript that combines data from developmental genetics, quantitative genetics, neontology, and paleontology, and in so doing, revealed a pattern in primate evolution that elucidates a major evolutionary event. I love this paper — it is what I envisioned doing 20 years ago as a first year graduate student (and advocated for in publication in 2004), yearning to apply a knowledge of genetic patterning mechanisms to hominid paleontology. Doing this well took a lot more background research than I realized it would take, but it is great to finally be here.

It has been quite an adventure trying to get this manuscript published, and we aren’t quite there yet. I’ll post about that later, once the journey finds its happy ending. For now, I wanted to talk about the process.

Did you notice what I did not mention in the description of how we did the research?

There is no eureka moment.

evo_67_1_coverI’ve commented on this before. At that time it was in regards to another magical collaboration that resulted in my lab’s cover article in Evolution (Grieco, Rizk, & Hlusko. 2013. A modular framework characterizes micro- and macroevolution of old world monkey dentitions. Evolution 67(1):241-59.)

The day after that paper was accepted for publication, I was coincidentally interviewed for The Leakey Foundation’s Dig Deeper series.

I direct your attention to the 2 minutes 52 second mark in the video, when I was asked if I’d ever had a eureka moment.

I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that in good science, at least in my scientific discipline, there is no such thing as a eureka moment. A good scientist may see an output of an analysis or find a fossil in the field that ends up being the key piece to solving a scientific puzzle, but the knee-jerk reaction is, or should be, one of skepticism. Not one of “yes! I did it!”

(In the field, we have the term “hominid fever”, which describes the condition you have when everything looks like a hominid. This can really be embarrassing. After hearing multilple stories of  paleontologists rushing off to make press announcements for “hominids” that turned out to be monkeys and carnivores, I am perhaps the most boring, unexcited fossil-finder. Just ask my grad student Whitney Reiner about the moment when she discovered a one-million-year-old hominid distal ulna at Olduvai Gorge). 

I get that a skeptical narrative of discovery doesn’t make good copy. Everyone loves the idea of a eureka moment.

But when we place so much emphasis on eureka moments, and when good scientists fib a bit to embellish their discovery story to make it more exciting for the press and social media, the public and other scientists start to believe that this is how it is supposed to happen.

Young scientists aren’t being taught the conservative approach. They aren’t being taught that skepticism is the foundation of good science. Uncertainty followed by a lot of hard work is good science. Immediately knowing the answer is not.

Ours is a field of discovery. But us more senior scientists need to be more clear that discovery means trying to disprove what you think you may have found. Only after you have exhausted all the ways you can demonstate that an interpretation is wrong, then you know you’ve likely discovered something new.

There’s no eureka moment in there, but if you are lucky, you just might get to have a 6-month long eureka experience. Like I did in the spring of 2015.

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