Johns Hopkins Researchers’ Lab Mistake Leads to Nobel-Winning Discovery

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Dr. Torsten Wiesel, via the Golden Goose Award
Dr. Torsten Wiesel, via the Golden Goose Award

When is a mistake not a mistake? When it ends up winning you a Nobel Prize, of course.

That’s essentially what happened to neurophysiologists Torsten Wiesel and David Hubel, who were working at Johns Hopkins in the 1950s. At the time, they were trying to learn more about how neurons reacted to stimuli, and were attempting to study this by showing cats and monkeys images of black dots. (Science: it’s glamorous!) But they were having a hard time getting the neurons to respond–at least until one of the researchers accidentally knocked a slide out of whack, showing the glowing edge of the slide. The cats’ neurons went crazy. The simple mistake caused the two men to redesign their experiment, which eventually led to a whole new understanding of how the brain processes visual stimuli.

Essentially, “they found that particular neurons in the visual cortexes of cats and monkeys—the areas in their brains responsible for processing visual information—didn’t respond to simple points of light, but rather to lines, and in particular, lines and contours with specific orientations,” according to the Golden Goose Award website. The two men eventually moved to Harvard, where their on-going research helped form the foundation of the neuroscientific concept of neuroplasticity–the idea that the brain can reshape itself.

Incidentally, Wiesel and Hubel (who has since died) were recently awarded the 2015 Golden Goose Award. This honor is given to federally funded scientific research that may have seemed odd at the time (say, showing dots to cats) but which has resulted in significant scientific progress. Think of it as a counterpoint to all those politicians who ridicule scientific research that they don’t understand at all.

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  1. That is not a mistake. Clumsiness or serendipity, perhaps, but a mistake requires actual intention of action or thought.

    Either way, glad to hear that these gentlemen discovered something valuable and useful.

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