The process of discovery is also like being part of a motion picture set that is so well-designed that people live with an implicit assumption about it being a factual reality.
The foundation of discovery is learning. This spans a of spectrum of a student realizing that which has already been time-tested over centuries to the revelation of something truly novel that may lead to invention. In between is innovation, the backbone of technology where one is able to organize seemingly unrelated bits into new application.
Learning en route to discovery can take many forms. There is the brilliant flash of intuition, for example, when all effort suddenly comes together to deliver an expanded knowing. This Eureka! mode of invention has been a mainstay since humans became conscious and curious. Another form of discovery is serendipity, the seemingly accidental or chance finding. When Alexander Fleming noticed that bacteria were not growing around the mold that had appeared on some unwashed culture plates he had casually left on his lab bench, he turned that observation into penicillin.
Yet, as mathematics professor Steven Strogatz points out, serendipitous discoveries are not chance revelations. They occur because people are alertly looking for something; they “just happen to find something else.” In his book Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order, Strogatz entertainingly reveals processes of entrainment, resonance, cooperation as being parts of a greater synchronicity occurring throughout life.66
There is also discovery as measured by the time-honored plodding of a disciplined mind as it wrestles with what is known, what it sees that doesn’t fit convention, and eventually illuminates the unknown that waits behind a veil. Einstein remained on track for years as he developed the thinking that eventually led to his theory of relativity. The simple truth is that the heart of discovery contains many styles, these and others, and that each supports the others.
Discovery is regulated by models—small or large landscape views—which at once open and close perception. All of the different avenues of discovery are constructs that allow us to focus awareness in ways that deliver results. Even serendipity, where discovery-by-chance may seem random, needs the support of a context in which the discovery may take hold. Fleming, for example, had extensive scientific background that guided the application of his observation; penicillin didn’t surface like a rabbit from a hat.
Discovery also hinges on the interplay of learning and imagination. Perception closes when valid perceptions of imagination are not recognized or dismissed as irrelevant. The person advancing the ideas often suffers ridicule or worse by those who, for whatever reason, have a stake in the current scheme of things. Even in the midst of the technological development of undersea travel, in which supposedly foolish ideas became reality, the mere talk of something that could fly would have almost ensured a hard rebuff; the prevailing consensus regarded air travel as impossible and inhibited forward movement. Imagination drove the inventions forward.
The process of discovery is also like being part of a motion picture set that is so well-designed that people live with an implicit assumption about it being a reality. Then the curtain lifts, revealing yet a new landscape and people say, “Oh, how wonderful, we found the real world.” This happens time and again as human awareness increases, yet we are not taught that the curtain will rise once again to reveal yet another entirely new vista. Going backstage to observe what is really going on, rather than remaining focused on the special effects, is at the heart of discovery.
First Section: Process of Discovery