The Rarity of Breakthroughs

January 16, 2012 by Gabe | [mmd] |

I see news every week with claims that some new breakthrough in science will imminently revolutionize some aspect of our world. As a science insider, I’ll give you a tip. The chances of a significant “breakthrough” are vanishingly small. The chances that said breakthrough will lead to a mass marketed product is also very small. I think most people imagine that scientists investigate some genius idea that suddenly and unexpectedly bears fruit. No. Scientists work on relatively mundane theories based on literature precedent that is based on huge amounts of prior research. The only breakthrough is the breakthrough to the general media.

The only real breakthroughs in science come from investigating the completely unknown, like other planets, the depths of the ocean and Canada.[1] What most people perceive as a sudden scientific or technical advancement is really the succesfull conclusion to a long series of failures.

Here are some recent chemistry[2] breakthroughs that actually did lead to a real commercial product in a relatively short time.

Purple dye

Sulfa Drugs

There’s really nothing else I can think of that was a sudden discovery (read breakthrough) that made a difference in the real world. Don’t get me wrong. I think there are many important advancements and significant inventions in the past 200 years of chemical research. I just wouldn’t call them breakthroughs.


  1. Sorry. I’m just making a funny. Love you Canadians. Literally. I’m married to a Canadian citizen. Let’s hope she doesn’t read this post.  ↩

  2. The only area of study that I feel somewhat competent enough to discuss.  ↩

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