Discovering the Expected – Issue 101: In Our Nature

Let me tell you the tale of two Nobel Prizes—well, almost. The first Prize I want to tell you about was awarded to Wilhelm Röntgen in 1901 for the discovery of X-rays. The details of this discovery are fascinating in their own right, but the salient point for us is that Röntgen was not looking for X-rays at all. Instead, he was studying the behavior of various types of vacuum tubes. The unexpected shimmering of a piece of his equipment that contained barium made him suspect that something unusual was happening. He was in Stockholm to collect his medal within six years.

The second Nobel Prize I want to tell you about is different in two important ways. First, it hasn’t been awarded yet, and may never be. Second, it involves what is, in some sense, the opposite of an unexpected discovery. The scientists involved knew what they were looking for: an exceedingly rare particle produced when two protons are smashed together. In fact, only once in about 10 billion collisions does this particle occur. As a result, far from taking into consideration an unexpected data source like Röntgen did, they threw away 99.995 percent of their raw data because it…
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