Prologue: I was driving the other night and listening to Bohemian Rhapsody, arguably the most famous piece of music Queen ever produced. In a weird way, it got me thinking about research.
I belong to the Fortunate Generation. That is to say, around the end of 1975 when Queen released a new album called A Night at the Opera, I was of an appropriate age and income to walk into Records on Wheels, hand over 5 bucks or so (maybe more, I might have bought the import), and take the record home. And then, for the first time, I heard Bohemian Rhapsody. And — this is the critical bit — because I hadn’t heard the song before I Did Not Know What Was Coming Next. Bohemian Rhapsody wasn’t an anthem or an icon or a metaphor then. Just a new Queen song on a new Queen record. It started slowly, and then there were some tasty Brian May guitar bits here and there. But then, after those few little staccato piano notes a couple of minutes in, there was unleashed, suddenly, a bizarre operatic flight. It spiralled out and away, taking me on a wild, weird ride before dropping me into the powerful, pounding ending that we all know and love. I was . . . surprised.
Some other music surprised me in those years because there were always a few musicians who did things that were not expected. The first time I heard Led Zeppelin’s In the Light. The first time I heard most things Frank Zappa did back then. The day I bought the Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bollocks. The first time Elvis Costello appeared on Saturday Night Live. These were, for me, defining moments in my musical life, partly because they were great, but partly because they were off the rails.
When we do science, we often use the Scientific Method. We consider the context of our research question, we look at the available evidence, we formulate a hypothesis, and then we make predictions about how a particular system will act. We accumulate new data, or look at old data in new ways, and let the data dance for us. We tease out the patterns, and we hope that the patterns support our predictions. When that happens, we are happy scientists. Results that do what we expect them to are comfort food for science brains. They give us a little friendly punch on the arm and tell us “yeah, you called that one!” They shore up our faith in our own ability to Do Science, and give us the encouragement to keep doing it.
But sometimes, we are surprised. Sometimes we see a new thing that just does not make sense. Sometimes our little system does exactly the opposite of what we expect and the data spins and jumps, glancing at us with mud and leaves and bits of food spattered all over it and the data says “HA!”
It’s a Bohemian Rhapsody moment.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just a thing. Sometimes a good thing. Because the surprises are often where the new questions come from. The surprises are what make us stop, and think, and take a very close look at things again.
I’ve had a few surprises in research in the past couple of years. Surprises about just how many different kinds of flies live in otherwise barren-looking habitats. Surprises about how communities of insects assemble themselves in newly colonized places. Surprises about how climate change affects single species of northern flies. Surprises when I look down the microscope and see a little fly that I should recognize but that is just so weird that I can’t wrap my head around it. These were good surprises. I liked them. They made me happy. Some of them launched me off into explorations of new questions. And I like exploring.
Sometimes, the great joy of science happens when things work out exactly as we predicted. But sometimes, the great joy of science happens when we are completely surprised.
Galileo Figaro. Magnifico.