Answers and inspiration can come from anywhere or from anyone. Legend has it that Sir Issac Newton’s theories on gravity resulted from him being hit on the head while sitting under an apple tree (actually, he saw it drop, but it’s questionable whether it landed on his head), producing an “a-ha” moment in physics. Dr. Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1926 came from a contaminated petri dish. Dr. Fleming observed a zone of inhibition around a mold growing on the plate. Instead of pitching the plates, he asked himself why. The “why” ushered in an age of antibiotics.
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Another inspiration was described by one of my UC Davis professors, Dr. Marty Miller. A food processor asked Dr. Miller to help determine why intermittent spoilage was occurring in its canned- and glass-packed products. He spent several days in the plant watching operations and reviewing records. He came up with nothing. Dr. Miller then decided to take a look at what was going on during the night shift. Again, nothing.
Frustrated, he ended up chatting with the night shift janitor who had been with the company for many years. After Dr. Miller described the problem, the janitor thought a bit and said, “Well, a few years back we used to pay the boys on Friday. They could go out and whoop it up bit and sleep it off Saturday morning. Now, everyone gets paid on Wednesday and they still whoop it up.” With no other ideas, Dr. Miller looked back at the records, and lo and behold, each incident occurred on a Thursday after pay day. Company management thought he was a bit “touched” when his recommendation after almost a full week of investigation was simply, “Put pay day back on Friday.” But they did, and the problem went away.
I experienced a similar moment 30 years ago when I was asked to go to Fujian Province in China to figure out why there was Staphylococcus enterotoxin in canned mushrooms. The team and I received some background information including slides from the companies that purchased mushrooms in 1988 that were toxic. A few slides showed that mushrooms were being stored in black PVC bags and tied shut. Mushrooms respire rapidly so these bags would soon become anaerobic. We observed many shaky practices when we got to Fujian, but saw no product stored in bags as was done in 1988. Those few slides allowed us to design experiments that demonstrated how enterotoxin could be produced in quantities that actually survived the thermal processes done on canned mushrooms.
The main message here is be observant, listen, and consider even the smallest or most insignificant things. Those little factors may be the key to solving big problems.