Finding and the recognition of finding

The following words were written by Prof. Eiji Osawa in a 1993 paper in which he looked back at the history of the discovery of buckminsterfullerene — C60. While the 1985 discovery was credited to Kroto et al, there were several previous studies — including one in 1970 by Osawa himself — that hinted at this then novel form of carbon.

Here then, are Osawa’s perceptive (and very gracious) words: :

Let us conclude our presentation by a comment on the relative importance between the well-known two steps in the process of discovery: finding and the recognition of finding (Berson 1992). Our inevitable conclusion, after observing such a large number of missed discoveries, is that the latter is much more important and difficult than the former. A finding is usually made by chance, as in the case of the C60 peak in the mass spectrum of laser-vaporized carbon clusters (Kroto et al. 1985). Hence there is not much one can do but to resort to serendipity.

The most crucial moment comes after a finding has been made. The most desirable situation would be that the discoverers themselves recognize the relevance of their finding and explain the relations with the then accepted body of knowledge, using a language that leads others to logically understand the significance of the [discovery]. Here a number of novel qualities are required: the imagination to grasp generality on the basis of a small piece of evidence, the talent to give an appropriate name (Nickon & Silversmith 1987) and the ability to communicate well with other scientists. It is truly gratifying to realize that the authors of the 1985 Nature paper had all these attributes.

* * *

Osawa’s paper is here. A 2001 article by a group of scientists — including Kroto, Curl and Smalley who won the 1996 Nobel in chemistry for the discovery of fullerene — describes the circumstances under which they became aware of Osawa’s 1970 paper, which appeared in a Japanese journal.

Finally, here’s a ‘perspectives’ piece by Jerome A. Berson (cited by Osawa in the quote above) entitled “Discoveries missed, discoveries made: creativity, influence, and fame in chemistry.”


About Abi

My name is T. A. Abinandanan, and I am a professor of Materials Engineering at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
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