How does a major breakthrough in science happen? Is it because noone has thought of it that way? Are there major breakthroughs in the future of medicine and technology because noone thought of it that way?


How does a major breakthrough in science happen? Is it because noone has thought of it that way? Are there major breakthroughs in the future of medicine and technology because noone thought of it that way?

In: Technology



Not necessarily.

In some cases, like Einstein’s relativity, it could very well be what you said, no one had thought of something that way before.

In other cases, it may be that the theory had always predicted something but the breakthrough is finally finding evidence that definitively supports a theory – this is like the discovery of the Higg’s Boson 7 years ago. It was theorized that this particle should exist but an experiment finally found strong evidence of it.

The same goes for medicine and technology. There are sometimes just brand new ideas perhaps spurred on by new materials or methods (like better computers). More often, the breakthrough was something that the people working on it had wanted to achieve and finally found a method that worked.

Since science is pretty advanced nowadays and computing tools and simulations are pretty powerful, it is rare that breakthroughs are something someone stumbles upon by accident. It is much more likely that breakthroughs are the result of painstaking and exhaustive and deliberate effort by a team of experts.

Sort. It’s more like a chain reaction of stuff. For example, if I discover a new chemical X that no one knew existed or how to make, then that opens a lot of doors. There are thousands of different things that you could do with any particular chemical, like putting it in toothpaste, or washing your car with it, or adding it to pharmaceuticals, or cooking pies with it, or coating industrial equipment with it, etc etc etc. So, in some sense you could say that for every single pair of (Chemical, Application), nobody has ever thought of it that way, unless they have. Most such combinations are useless or dangerous, you don’t want to put motor oil in your toothpaste, you don’t want to put grass in your toothpaste, etc… So brute force trying combinations randomly is a bad idea. But if I invent some new Chemical X that no one has heard of before, then every single one of these combinations will be untested, and if there’s some good understanding of its properties then this could lead to a series of very quick new discoveries of things it’s good for.

Now maybe one of these combinations allows Chemical X to mix with something else to create another brand new Chemical Y, and the whole process repeates, leading to another series of discoveries. And then maybe that creates Chemicals A,B, and C and a chain reaction happens with lots of new discoveries in a short time period.

Now try to generalize this to things outside of chemistry. New theories creating new theories creating new theories, because there are thousands of different combinations of things that they can apply to, and a brand new thing has a lot of low-hanging fruit that are easy to test, while older things have already had all of the easy discoveries made already so progress tends to be slower.

Normally it is small steps toward a bigger picture until an item like a telephone can be then sold to the public, then some breakthroughs happen by accident, but it normally takes a genius to recognise that the accident while it didn’t produce the expected results the accident could be better, unfortunately there are probably a whole host of potential breakthroughs which were chucked away because they failed to do what was intended. Saccharin, penicillin and safety glass are just some examples –

Breakthroughs are, in majority, problems we knew about for ages and even knew how we can solve them but didn’t have the means due to a deficiency in knowledge and/or technology. Every now and then, particularly in before the 21st century, we did have scientists think of concepts that no one ever thought about, or at least in a documented manner. But that’s really rare, and even when apparent completely novel ideas energy, like those of Einstein, yeah they were postulated way before his time, but they were neither proven mathematically nor experimentally. Many people think Einstein was a particularly unique scientist, sure he was incredibly intelligent and resourceful, but he happened to stumble upon just the right concepts in just the right time and used his intellect to put claims down as facts with mathematics and creative experimentation.

In biology, we also get such breakthroughs. Like when they first put forth germ theory. The guy who characterized the first virus, he thought it was a protein. Then he proved the concept of viruses exist, and that was such an alien concept at the time. The guy who characterized prions thought it was a virus at first, then he proved proteins can be pathogenic and transmissible. Then the guys that showed a bacterium can survive in the stomach and cause ulcers and cancer. All these guys were called crazy at some point, but they broke through the rigid concepts of previous science and caused a paradigm shift. But others had break through that were simply possible because technology finally permitted it. Others stumbled upon a phenomenon in another organism and were innovative enough to customize it for other uses like PCR or CRISPR Cas9.

So it’s a combination of things: creative unique ideas, innovative ways to use old ideas, challenging previous ideas, refitting already occurring phenomena to other uses, etc. But in general, the proportion of truly novel ideas is decreasing as science progresses. It may seem like we’ve explored all the major concepts in nature and few are left but the more likely thing is that we’re held prisoner by our current advancing knowledge, we’re stuck because we’re biased by already established concepts and preoccupied in trying to further elucidate those concepts. Not to mention the way funding works for research. Crazy ideas don’t get funding much, only safer bets are given money. But still, some professors spent their lives proving to the world they’re competent in what they do and at some point, if they’re at a rich university, they can get funding for the craziest of ideas because they established credibility. And such ideas so often pan out and produce truly novel results.

Not a good ELI5 answer but if you really want to know, I would recommend the book – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn

Most scientific advancement occurs in small steps, but the big breakthroughs often do occur because nobody thought of things that way before.

My favorite example is Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. If you look at the basic premises of the theory, you will see nothing that people have not known for thousands of years. Animals have traits that get passed on to their children. Animals that die before they reproduce don’t get to pass on their traits. The representation of these traits change over time.
These are all simple observations that were well known to any educated person since antiquity. Darwin’s brilliant insight was not the discovery of these mechanisms, but the discovery that these mechanisms were sufficient, over extremely large periods of time, to explain the diversity of life on Earth. Of course, this insight itself did not come out of nowhere as this was a time when people were beginning to understand just how amazingly old everything really was.