Discovery Versus Observation

Scientific discovery is finding something new and something unheard of before; scientific observation is learning new and different things about what is already known. Most discoveries are further enhanced by observations that lead on to better uses. Processing scientific theory into what is discovery and what is observation is both a singular and a collective effort. A lone person may discover something essential and necessary while  opening up possibilities for numerous others to observe and take note and to further enhance the original discovery.

Yet, discovery is not possible without observation. To discover – and we are talking about science here – scientists must be aware of a lack or need or something incomplete even if this awareness is subconscious in nature. As an example, Alexander Fleming who discovered Penicillin observed that a mold had killed bacteria in a Petri dish. This was quite accidental. Therefore his observation led to the discovery of penecillin. Likewise, his discovery of the mold led to his observation that the bacteria were dead. Observing what he had discovered, other scientist perfected his discovery which led to the manufacture of antibiotics.

By this we can conclude the line separating discoveries and observations are inexact and are used interchangeably when writing about and discussing scientific breakthroughs. One needs the other. Other closely related words to discovery are finding, sighting, unearthing and detection. On the other hand observation when run through the same thesaurus has these distinctions, surveillance, watch, close watch, scrutiny, examination, inspection, supervision.

.Discoveries are made while observing and observation is necessary for discovering. It is almost like asking which is more useful, the hands or the feet. Hands are designed more intricately but feet get us to places where our hands are kept busier. It was observation that caused Wilhelm Roentgen to discover x-rays. It was totally by accident but had he not been observant while experimenting with batteries trying to learn more about electrons, he would not have made his useful discovery. Yet, how could he completely ignore the light his experiment was generating? He must have discovered he was onto something important.

Trying to determine whether such and such should be written up in scientific papers as a discovery or an observation has more to do with facts as opposed to speculation. An example: The fact is Donald Johanson discovered Lucy, a 3.2 million year old female hominid in Ethiopia in 1974 and in 1978 Mary Leaky discovered hardened volcanic ash footprints in Tanzania. Carbon dating and observations put the two discoveries together and concluded that the same species of humanity that Lucy belonged to were in other parts of Africa. They also observed that her group had walked upright.

What all this amounts to is conjecture, or in scientific circles as unproven scientific theory. In plain talk it is guess work. In my own opinion it is irrelevant whether the two words are appropriately used when describing whether something was discovered or merely observed. Do we discover daylight each morning when we get out of bed and open my blinds, or are we only observing that night has passed and another day has started?