This fascinating article has nothing to do with drug discovery per se, but it has plenty to do with discovery itself. It’s a memoir of the author’s physicist grandfather, who believed while working at his job at Oak Ridge that he might have come across a big result in probability as related to quantum mechanics and physical law. Now, whether this idea is correct or not is the key question, and that’s still unanswered. One reason it’s still unanswered is that his paper trying to explain the idea went unpublished, again and again, a process that consumed a good part of the last years of his career.
The author (Veronique Greenwood) isn’t a physicist herself, but she believes, after having gone through the huge pile of files that her grandfather (Francis Perey) left after his death, that it’s more likely than not that he made a mistake somewhere. If the work had ever been put out there for other physicists and mathematicians to look at, perhaps this could have been resolved, but that never happened. When he sent his manuscript out for review in the early 1980s, he got referee reports like this:
Incomprehensible … if there is any core of actual results anywhere in this incredible work, it is hidden completely from me by the page after page of maddeningly repetitious philosophical froth … No purpose could be served by publishing the work in its present form, because I do not think there is one reader in the world who could make sense of it. . .
OK, then. That wasn’t the only response like that, either. The problem is, densely (and/or poorly) written papers are not necessarily wrong or the work of people who have gone off the rails, although it’s for sure that those people produce work of this exact type. There have been numerous cases across several different fields of people who were right, who were really on to something, but who (in retrospect) just could not make themselves sufficiently understood. The sort of mind that comes up with a wonderful new result is not always the sort of mind that is capable of explaining it to anyone else very well, and for a sufficiently complicated topic, it may take a while no matter who’s explaining it. Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem was first announced at a conference roundtable, and apparently the only person who understood it enough to grasp its importance at the time was John von Neumann. And believe me, not every audience has a von Neumann in it.
Many of us have had the experience of getting referee reports back that show that at least one of the people who read the paper did not even grasp what it was supposed to be about. And at times like this, you experience a quick crisis, a volatile mixture of anger and doubt. The first strengthens your resolve that you’re right, because the objections of someone who doesn’t even understand the first thing about your work are worthless. But the doubt hits you because you thought that you had done a clear job of explaining what you were doing – how could anyone miss it? Was reviewer #3 that dense? Or are you just a lot worse at explaining yourself than you thought? You can see these exact struggles as you read the article about Perey’s attempts to get his work published.
The good thing is that all of that work is now available to read, thanks to the magic of the internet. The particular magic of preprint servers is worth thinking about for current ideas: these days, you can at least get your ideas out there. Now, for any individual manuscript that may or may not be a good idea, from either a scientific or career perspective. You might be totally wrong, you might be only partially wrong in a way that could have been fixed if you’d bounced the idea off more people, or you might be completely right but just are doing a hideous job of explaining yourself. It’s a somewhat different situation, but years ago I read that there were a number of editors who saw earlier versions of J. K. Rowling’s first “Harry Potter” book. Which was significantly worse than the version that eventually got published – she took many of the criticisms to heart and went back and worked some more, and what emerged eventually made her wealthy and famous. If she’d just said “Ah, the heck with all of you” and self-published as is, that never would have happened, most likely. Science is different – we’re arguing about matters of truth rather than matters of taste. But it’s not quite as different as we’d like. As Perey’s story shows, not all these problems are easily resolved – at least, not in the lifetimes we have – so there are times when just getting the ideas out there is probably the best thing for the world.