Chase, Chance, and Creativity: The Lucky Art of Novelty by James H. Austin, New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1978. 239 pages,
What is a book review about chance and creativity, written by a neurologist, doing in a refractive surgery journal? Treatises on YAG laser sculpting, relaxing incisions, and special trephine are certainly pertinent to us, but why a discourse on creativity? Altering the cornea, a superbly designed structure that has stood the test of hundreds of millions of years of wear and tear is not going to be easy. For example, if one alters the corneal shape, the epithelium miraculously remodels the surface, which often returns to the original curvature. Invasions into the stroma usually incite a hazy fibrous reaction. Let's face it, we're going to need a lot of creativity for refractive surgery to succeed.
James H. Austin, the author, is indeed a creative researcher. To his credit are the identification of the enzyme deficiencies in metachromatic leukodystrophy and globoid leukodystrophy. After taking the reader through the steps leading to his own discoveries, he thoughtfully examines the creative process itself.
In general, few of us have all the skills necessary to make a major scientific breakthrough. First,you must be willing to take a chance. As Professor Houston Merritt used to say, "Behold the turtle, he makes progress only when he sticks his neck out." Also, the creative researcher must often confront conventional ideas head on. Thomas Edison put it well: "There ain't no rules around here. We're trying to accomplish something."
Above all, the creative researcher must be able to see the big picture, ie, connections that are not obvious. Charles Darwin's son described this quality in his father when he said, '?ß never let exceptions go unnoticed." Dr Austin feels that Paul Erblich best exemplified another important quality: persistence. Recall that Erhlich ultimately developed Salversan, Compound 606, for the treatment of syphilis. That meant that Erhlich tried at least 605 unsuccessful compounds before reaching number 606. Erhlich reveals another important feature of the creative scientist; he showed his talents early. At age 8, he devised a formula for his own cough medicine and had the local pharmacist make it up.
Dr Austin goes on to tell us that in addition to the personal attributes noted above, luck and chance play a major role in the creative process. He notes that if Alexander Fleming had not been so keen about water polo, he might not have chosen to go to St Mary Hospital in London, which had a fine swimming pool. It was at St Mary's that Fleming first discovered lysozyme in saliva and then penicillin. Austin notes that, if not for Fleming's sense of Scottish thrift, he would not have kept the moldy culture plates of staphylococcus as long as he did, and thus wouldn't have noticed the antibiotic's effect. In fact, the combination of luck, the prepared mind, and the creative person seem to be the common denominators in most scientific discoveries.
Are there practical lessons that we might take home from this book? Indeed, as research money gets tighter, our colleagues at the National Eye Institute, who allocate our grant funds, might well follow some of Dr Austin's ideas. He demonstrates that only special people are capable of major discoveries. Thus, more emphasis should be put on the researcher than on the grant proposal's style, promise, or completeness. A creative researcher can best be evaluated by his or her past track record. Now, this does not mean merely a list of published papers. What is needed is evidence of creativity, perseverance and diligence. Very often such traits appear early on in the educational process. Thus recommendations from teachers or other creative colleagues and mentors should be used to identify these traits.
In summary, this book is a well- written treatise on creativity. Because it is written by a physician, the physician reader will enjoy it all the more.