by Andre on 1 August 2005
This is an issue that most (all?) scientists think about and I’m no exception. The problem isn’t thinking about it though – the problem is of course solving it! That’s not to say that there’s any set of features shared by all ideas that have impact that aren’t also shared with ideas that have less impact,* but I think it would be interesting to try to think about some general features that are shared by many important ideas or discoveries.
Something is often important if it is unexpected. I don’t mean unexpected in the sense of a serendipitous discovery, although such a discovery could of course be important, rather I’m thinking of situations where people expect one thing to happen, but then something else happens. For example, I don’t think most people expected there to be much backscattering of alpha particles from thin gold foils, but there was and it had a big impact on physics (or was it chemistry?). As a counter example, consider Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA. Although no one knew exactly what the structure would be, helices were already known from protein structures, and a double helix is not that different. In fact, as mentioned in the previous link, Pauling had already suggested a triple helical structure. At any rate, the impact of this discovery wasn’t due to its unexpectedness.
So why was the structure of DNA such a high impact discovery? I would say there are two main reasons: it was very general and enabling. By general, I mean that DNA is responsible for storing the genetic information of all known living things and so it represents one of the common threads through all of biology. It also enabled a huge amount of research. It also enabled a huge amount of research: the structure is intimately connected to the way it works and this could be used to suggest new experiments that would have been difficult to imagine without first knowing DNA’s structure. The results of these experiments form the core of molecular biology and a large part of the field since then has been devoted to working out the details of this central dogma.
Other ideas have impact because people say that they should. This isn’t a property of the ideas themselves, and so doesn’t really belong on this list, but I’m tired and getting desperate for something else to add. Some people would argue that sting theory falls into this category, but since I’m far from an expert I won’t embarrass myself discussing this one. Besides, some of my best friends are string theorists…
Ok, that’s all I have for now. If you have something to add, please do so in the comments!
*Except maybe a high impact factor! But I don’t want to talk about that.