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Saturday Morning Experiments

By Catherine Pope

July 4, 2020

“On Saturday, you don’t have to be completely rational,” according to scientist Oliver Smithies. In his excellent book Range, David Epstein explains how Nobel prize-winning Smithies practised what he called Saturday Morning Experiments. Nobody else was around in the lab, so he felt free to muck about. There was no need to weigh things carefully or decide whether this was really a good use of his time.

Although he did once accidentally dissolve an important piece of equipment, Smithies also achieved many breakthroughs. A lifetime of weekend experimentation led to a breakthrough paper aged 60 and a Nobel Prize 20 years later, in recognition of his work on disease-causing genes.

Naturally, colleagues wondered why he bothered to come to work during the week. They supported his efforts by saving damaged equipment he could tinker with. It would be labelled ‘NBGBOKFO’ – “no bloody good, but OK for Oliver”. Maybe you have something that’s no bloody good, but might form the basis of an experiment – an old laptop, phone, or other equipment?

Putting aside time to play without expectation of certain outcomes inspires creativity and new insights. An advantage of being self-employed is that we don’t have to confine our experiments to Saturdays. Instead, we can put aside a block of time to play during the week. Maybe we won’t win a Nobel Prize, but we might just get a breakthrough of our own.

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