2.1 Distinguishing terms: discovery
The word ‘innovation’ usually implies novelty and its practical use. But how can we be more specific? We first need to distinguish the term from three closely-related concepts: discovery, invention and design. These words are often used interchangeably, so it is important to be clear about the differences in meaning and how each relates to ‘innovation’. We have selected illustrations of each term. By reading them in turn and finding your own examples, you will develop a clearer idea of each, and how they relate to innovation. First we look at discovery.
Case study: Discovery
Alexander Fleming discovers penicillin
Alexander Fleming was born in Scotland in 1881 and later trained as a doctor in London. He became a research scientist at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School, working on vaccines. During the First World War, he served in the British Army’s Medical Corps where he witnessed the prolonged impact of battlefield infections. After the war, Fleming returned to his research career at St Mary’s. He began to study influenza (flu), a disease that was a particular priority following the pandemic of 1918–19, which is estimated to have killed more than 20 million people. The research team had been using a set of Petri dishes to grow the bacterium staphylococci. One day in September 1928, Fleming was sorting through some used dishes and noticed a bacteria-free circle on a dish that had been accidentally contaminated with mould from a neighbouring laboratory. Following consultations with colleagues, the mould was identified as penicillium notatum and Fleming decided to name the active substance, ‘penicillin’. By the end of the century, this pioneering antibiotic was being described as the world’s most effective life-saving drug.
- Can you think of another example of discovery? You could select one from the world of scientific research, or another area of human activity, such as the visual arts. Describe the discovery you chose in the box below.
Scientific discoveries are often the result of long periods of systematic research. However, Alexander Fleming’s experience shows that discovery can happen from chance or serendipity. In his case, the accidental contamination of a research study generated an unexpected outcome. We tend to associate discovery with the natural sciences, but it does occur in other fields. For example, in earlier generations, explorers could discover new parts of the world, and historians continue to discover new information about the past. In addition, creative artists often describe their work as the outcome of a process of discovery – often self-discovery.