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The Genius of Accidents

ByTom MillerThe Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Click here for Laurie’s profile.

There are some fields—science is one of them and so is music—which our culture typically regards as being all about natural genius. Either you’re born with the magic or you’re not. And if you’re not, the best you can probably hope for is to sell insurance… or to make lattes… or if you’re lucky, you can produce a web series for NOVA (the ceiling for the non-gifted… well,

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our ceiling). The fact of the matter, though, is that there aren’t very many Einsteins or Mozarts. And we can’t manufacture them either. There’s never been another Jupiter Symphony or an extra -special version of relativity. But still, there are folks among us who—everyday—create beautiful new music and do brilliant, groundbreaking science. Hmmm. Natural genius? An undeniable path? Destiny?

Mozart and Einstein… together again.

We thought about all this after our interview with Laurie Santos. Laurie is an extremely accomplished scientist—you don’t become a professor and run a lab at Yale University if you aren’t—but like most scientists, she doesn’t see herself as some kind of magical natural genius. In fact, she used the word “accident” more than once to describe her education and her career trajectory. Laurie ended up at Harvard for her undergraduate years, she told us, “by accident ”….

“You know, I did very well in high school and grew up in Massachusetts and thought that I would to go to college somewhere near home. And it just turned out that with the financial packages I got—well, first of all, I got into Harvard, but also I just got lots of financial aid from them. So it made sense to go.”

Laurie shows us her favorite monkey image
Once she got to Harvard, though, it must have been immediately apparent that this was the place where she’d become the master scientist she was destined to be. Right?

Well, no….

Laurie shows us her favorite monkey image

“My journey to actually doing this kind of science [experimental psychology] was a little bit accidental. I actually started out wanting to be a lawyer. But when I started in undergrad, the pre-law class I wanted to take was full. And so I went to my freshman advisor very upset, you know, ‘what am I going to do? I’m not going to be a lawyer.’ And she said, ‘Why don’t you just take Introduction to Psychology? That’s a good course for lawyers.’ And then I took that course and it just stuck. And from there, I ended up taking more courses where I started thinking more about primates—one of them was the course my eventual graduate advisor Marc Hauser would teach—and that was actually the course that I teach now at Yale. And it started on the first day, when he put up PowerPoint slides of a beautiful Caribbean island [where he did his primate research], and he said, ‘I’m always looking for research assistants.’ And I think that afternoon I wrote an e-mail that said, ‘Look, Professor Hauser, I would like to work with you.’ And it’s kind of funny, because now I get those e-mails from my students.”

OK, so maybe the genius is in how people take advantage of the accidents.