How Scientific Breakthroughs Happen

How do breakthroughs happen? Not how we think.

Movies, books, and articles, constrained by time and word limits, often leave out the realities — the messy work, filled with dead ends, abandoned questions, and accidental discoveries. That is what Stuart Firestein, Professor of Biological Sciences at Columbia University, wants to change.

He believes that the roles ignorance and failure play in the discovery process are vastly underappreciated, so much so that he has written two books about them, Ignorance: How It Drives Science, and Failure: Why Science is So Successful. An advisor for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation program for The Public Understanding of Science, Stuart shares insights from his own work as a successful researcher and scientist and from those of his peers, as well as scientific philosophers and historians.

Insights from our interview:

  • Knowledge and facts are important insofar as they help us ask better questions
  • Conscious ignorance offers a useful playground for discovery
  • The messy process of science and discovery is where the value lies
  • The disconnect between scientific textbooks and courses and actual science
  • The innovative course he teaches that helps students gain a scientific mindset
  • What it is that makes a problem interesting
  • How scientists, researchers, and creatives look for connections
  • Why failure can be useful even if it never leads to an eventual success
  • The fact that the more expert a person is the less certain they will be
  • How systems limit innovation
  • Why we need better tools for assessment and evaluation in schools
  • Why we need feedback tools that are more diagnostic and less judgmental
  • Why he worries most about people who dislike or are disinterested in science
  • Why he sees his lab as a cauldron of curiosity
  • How writing books requires a different way of looking at things
  • How philosophy and history can impact science in an interactive way

Selected Links to Topics Mentioned

Stuart Firestein


Be Bad First by Erika Andersen

Is the Scientific Paper a Fraud by Peter Medawar

James Clerk Maxwell

Principles of Neuroscience

Eric Kandel

Kenneth Rogoff

D.H. Lawrence

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh




Sidney Brenner

Michael Krasny

Karl Popper

Thomas Kuhn

Isaiah Berlin

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