What “happy accident” has happened with your work in the lab, in the field, or in the course of your research that yielded an unexpected discovery or promising new path?
Associate Professor, Sociology
“We were conducting fieldwork in Alabama, looking at how poor families make decisions about moving. We had expected to hear about all of the trade-offs parents were making between school quality and neighborhood quality, while also worrying about cost. But the most striking thing we found was that most poor families were not making decisions to move at all. Instead, housing quality failure (such as fires and mold), landlord decisions, housing policy, domestic conflict, and neighborhood violence all pushed families into a cycle of housing instability. We call this ‘reactive mobility.’ Instead of moving up and out with each successive move, these unpredictable events kept families trapped in high-poverty neighborhoods. That surprise allowed us to focus our subsequent fieldwork in three other cities in exploring housing instability and its consequences for children.”
Professor, Psychological and Brain Sciences
“One of my graduate students, Michaela Warnecke, and I were following up on a study we did a few years ago, where we discovered that bats who are competing for a single prey in an open environment sometimes stop echolating—using sound waves to detect an object—and we wanted to find out whether that happens in other environments. We set up an artificial forest and hypothesized that the bats would not show this ‘silent behavior’ in this more complex setting. Our ‘accident’ was that the subjects in the first study were primarily male and those in the follow-up study were all female. We discovered female bats contrary to male bats do not show silent behavior in an open space, a finding that has larger implications for understanding how gender contributes to differences in survival and foraging behaviors.”
“String theorists in physics claim that they have provided a ‘theory of everything.’ I was working on the question of what a ‘theory of everything’ is supposed to do and whether it can do it, when I was invited to address a conference of string theorists in Munich. Their question was not mine, but related: Given that there are no experiments confirming string theory, and none soon anticipated, why should their theory be trusted, given that it is so highly speculative? Since they were interested in their question, rather than mine, I gave my lecture on the rich history of speculation in science, and tried to provide an answer for them that was historically and philosophically informed. Now I am writing a book
on the subject: What is scientific speculation, and when, why, and how should scientists engage in it. ”