Photo credits:
Sarah Thorén

SCAS News - 3 September, 2020

What is a Scientific Discovery?

What is a scientific discovery? The definition may not be as straightforward as one may think
at first glance. We asked three of our Pro Futura Scientia Fellows to reflect on how a discovery
is defined in their fields respectively. Meet Karin Jensen, Associate Professor of Clinical Neuro-
science at Karolinska Institutet, Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist, Associate Professor of History
at Stockholm University and Researcher at the Bolin Centre for Climate Research, Stockholm
University, and Eric Cullhed, Associate Professor of Greek at Uppsala University to learn more
about their experiences.

Karin Jensen

A major discovery in medicine is sometimes thought of as a eureka experience with the potential
to be awarded a Nobel Prize. Yet, most of us do work that is far from sensational and discoveries
happen so slowly that we see them as small incremental steps towards new knowledge. My own
research explores the human perception of pain and might not be prone to discoveries. Yet, a quick
poll among medical researchers who do work within research topics mentioned as potential Nobel
Prize winners corroborated my own experience. They too were reluctant to use the word discovery
about their own research as they see themselves as one piece of the puzzle, and that the boundaries
of a discovery are difficult to define. In advanced medical techniques there are often layers of inno-
vation behind a discovery, for example earlier innovations in chemistry and physics that pave the
way for a medical technique. The question is then where in a chain of innovations the discovery
begins and ends. This ‘relativist’ notion suggests a discrepancy between what people think a
discovery in medicine might look like, and what we as researchers experience from inside the medi-
cal laboratories. Yet, we make progress in medicine and sometimes we might even call it a discovery.
What makes a discovery can however not be determined easily by objective criteria. Instead, a discovery
in medicine can be determined by its research narrative and timeliness. In sum, I think that discoveries
in medicine are more difficult to define than one may think, as a discovery lies in the eye of the beholder.

Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist
Being an active researcher in two different disciplines – history and paleoclimatology/physical geography –
provides two rather different perspectives of the meaning of scholarly or scientific discoveries. Within
the discipline of history, one only rarely speaks in terms discoveries about new findings. The common
expression is new interpretations rather than discoveries. The term ‘discovery’ is generally reserved
for the finding of new, previously unknown, documentary sources. This use of ‘discovery’ is even
more common within archaeology when new physical artefacts or building remains are unearthed or
when new technology, like ancient DNA, is used to reanalyse existing physical artefacts. An avoidance
of the term ‘discovery’ is partly associated with a more ‘relativistic’ approach to scholarly interpretations,
but it is first and foremost embedded in the semantic tradition of history. The idea of reaching absolute
new knowledge is strange for some scholars in the humanities who place the emphasizes on the interpre-
tation and framework by which we observe and understand various phenomena. Different approaches to
the discourse of discovery are evident within the discipline of history, with scholars more oriented towards
the social sciences talking more in terms of discoveries, whereas scholars more orientated towards cultural
studies tend to avoid phrasing results as discoveries. It is symptomatic for research within history that
those making the boldest new reinterpretations of chains of events, or present entirely new theoretical
frameworks, most often are scholars from neighbouring disciplines such as political science or sociology.

Within paleoclimatology/physical geography, the discourse of discovery follows the general pattern of the
natural sciences. A concept of cumulative knowledge, with a less ‘relativistic’ perception, is dominating.
New interpretations are frequently expressed in terms of ‘discovery’. However, also the finding of, say,
a new palaeoclimate proxy archive, or a new technique for analysis, can be phrased as a ‘discovery’. The
latter use of the term is rather similar to its common use in history and archaeology. Although disciplinary
differences are evident for one working in both fields, that are clearly more than semantic ones, the simi-
larities with regard to ‘discoveries’ are significant enough for downplaying the differences. With regard
to personal experience of discoveries in research, it is obvious that my own two most important findings,
and publications, one in history and one in paleoclimatology were rather unplanned work and largely un
funded. Perhaps it lies in their nature of being ‘high-risk’ projects that they were not attracting funding.
Instead it was purely curiosity-driven research that resulted in my major discoveries and high-impact

Eric Cullhed
Classical philology is an interdisciplinary field of study concerned with analysis, interpretation, historization
and evaluation of all kinds of texts written in Latin and Greek. This can involve anything from establishing
and debating the basic sequences of letters that constitute those texts to posing open questions about the
highly diverse range of subjects they implicitly or explicitly address. This diversity means that the term
‘discovery’ is applied to different kinds of events whereby some kind of change, however small, is brought
about in the state of affairs within the discipline. It occasionally happens that philologists ‘discover’ new
manuscripts or inscriptions that were previously unexcavated or simply hidden away in archives and
collections. In this context the discovery lies in bringing new objects of study to the attention of the discipline.
More commonly philologists will discover new properties of previously known objects of study: this happens
whenever evidence for a certain relationship between two manuscripts is uncovered or new plausible readings
are conjectured, but also when intertextual links are proposed or narratological structures identified. Philologists
can also discover new methods for making such discoveries. We could also say that philologists ‘discover’
plausible historical hypotheses or interpretations of texts (and other kinds of artifacts related to texts). By this
I refer to a novel answer to a closed question, e.g. a new suggestion for the etymology of a word, for the
meaning of a poem, but also a more wide-ranging explanation for why a particular practice or value arose,
persisted or changed at a particular time. Philologists also ‘discover’ in the sense that rhetoricians use the
term: we invent arguments for or against a particular interpretation, approach or even aesthetic, ethic or
epistemic evaluation of a text, authorship, period or genre. Finally, philologists should occasionally pose
open questions to the texts in the hope of discovering something new about ourselves or the world; read
Plato’s Symposium and ask: what is love? Read Aristotle’s Poetics and ask: why do we enjoy so-called
‘negative’ emotions in art contexts? Read the comedies of Aristophanes or Menander and ask: what is
funniness? What is humor?