Saturday, September 15, 2007

Charge, challenge, and chance

A few weeks ago, a giant in the world of science passed away. Daniel Koshland left behind a legacy in science. Daniel Koshland left his mark on many aspects of science. As a pioneering enzymologist, he proposed the “induced fit” model of protein-ligand interactions, which now forms one of the foundations of enzymology and most protein-ligand interaction studies. He also had a number of other outstanding discoveries in a long career as a pioneering biochemist, which won him many awards and honors.

In addition, he was perhaps the best known editor of the premier scientific journal Science, which he transformed from “a good journal” to one of the highest impact journals out there. Most scientists strive to publish their best work in Cell, Science or Nature.

Of course, I never knew Dr. Koshland, but my present boss did, and he had the greatest respect and regard for him. He once told us about one of his own major scientific breakthroughs in the late eighties/early nineties, which he had sent to Science and which the reviewers had rejected (the findings seemed too speculative and out of the mainstream for the time). Dan, who was the editor then, overruled the reviewers, published the paper anyway, and the reported findings were proven to be absolutely right, and my boss went on to do many wonderful things in his scientific life.

Anyway, just a couple of weeks before he died, he wrote a perspective in Science called The Cha-Cha-Cha Theory of Scientific Discovery (subscription may be required). In this, he insightfully categorizes scientific discoveries into three groups; charge, challenge and chance, that he calls the “cha-cha-cha” theory. He describes “charge” discoveries as those where the discovery itself is obvious (the movement of stars and gravity, the laws of heredity, causes of heart attacks), but the way to solve to problem, or describe how it happens, is not clear. Everyone has seen it, but the discovery is in thinking of something no one else has thought about. Challenge is where there is a slow accumulation of facts or concepts that don’t quite fit with the existing scientific ideas of the time. The classic example of this would be quantum mechanics, which went beyond classical Newtonian mechanics. Finally, chance discoveries are those that the “prepared mind” encounters. The classic examples here are X-rays or Penicillin.

This succinct group pretty much describes how almost all major discoveries are made. I thought this was a tremendous little article particularly for young scientists. From these examples, it is obvious that waiting around for chance discoveries is unlikely to lead to a great career in science. For that you need to be at the right place at the right time, and most times are not those times. But “charge” could define a majority of everyday science. Even for small findings, the scientist takes charge and attempts to find a solution to an already existing problem (however small it might be). So, the key is to keep working on problems that exist, and to constantly work towards new solutions or explanations for them. Along the way, there may be times when solutions to “challenge” problems might arise.

So far, some of my most enriching moments in science have come from reading or listening to thinkers like Koshland, who help put things in perspective, while simultaneously inspiring scores of scientists around them.

Some further reading/resources:
The nine lives of Daniel E. Koshland (Randy Schekman, subscription may be required).
Interviews with Daniel Koshland (audio).
Lasker award.
A retrospective of Koshland’s life in Science magazine.


Maithri said...

Absolutely fascinating!

Great site,


Madhuri Sinha said...

Like a great scientist Dr. Koshland will be immortal through his monumental work in enzymology (which is already in text books). The cha cha cha theory sums up all the discoveries made or are going to be made in science. Good article. Well written. Thank You.

Sunil said...

thanks maithri.

madhuri.....i think the cha cha cha article is tremendously inspiring, and also puts scientific discoveries in perspective. Articles like that make the dreary long hours of science worthwhile.

Wavefunction said...

One of my favourite quotes comes from him when he says that spend your time on important problems, because you are probably going to waste an equal amount of time on trivial ones anyway.
P.S. The Scientists is excellent and I am halfway through...thanks for reviewing.

Unknown said...

hi sunil,

i am thiyagasundaram, pilot in IAF,

great site and very interesteing....

great going.


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