Great feats of academia and detection!
September 12, 2015 3:44 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for stories of clever academic detection.

I'd especially like stories which involve bringing together different disciplines to work something out (a great example is this story about how information from geology, Japanese seismological history, and Native American anthropology were brought together to date a great earthquake which took place before written historical records in the Pacific Northwest). But other lateral-thinking ways of working things out would be good too - for example, I once read about someone who'd worked out how to use lichen growth to date things by studying lichens on tombstones (ie you had a start date of when the object was placed there and therefore when lichen probably started to grow). Thanks!
posted by ontheradio to Science & Nature (14 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
My first FPP for Metafilter! (Full disclosure: I've subsequently gotten to know the researcher)
posted by cnanderson at 4:30 AM on September 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

"The Day the Mesozoic Died" The discovery of how the dinosaurs went extinct is one of the most important biological discoveries of the 20th century, and it was made by geologists, a nuclear physicist, and some petroleum engineers.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:33 AM on September 12, 2015 [5 favorites]

Snow's famous tracking down of the source of a cholera outbreak in London in 1854 called on bringing together lots of disparate info, including the fact that local monks were not susceptible, as it turned out because they only drank beer. The investigation is generally taken to be a founding event for the science of epidemiology.
posted by biffa at 5:45 AM on September 12, 2015 [5 favorites]

The observation of the cosmic microwave background and its link to the big bang
posted by crocomancer at 6:20 AM on September 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Janet Stephens' theory about how ornate Roman hairstyles were achieved probably qualifies.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:05 AM on September 12, 2015 [5 favorites]

Diagnosis of King George III's illnesses, and subsequent behaviours, using a mixture of analysis of hair samples and historical records.
posted by Jabberwocky at 7:53 AM on September 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Elo ratings were created to rank chess players, but the system allows for all sorts of comparison-based analysis. The system was featured in the movie The Social Network as part of the genesis of Facebook.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:49 AM on September 12, 2015

Snow's famous tracking down of the source of a cholera outbreak

this is a great story, and a great and highly readable book about it is Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map.

I haven't read this myself yet, but one of my friends is crazy about the book Scholar Adventures about just this sort of stuff in literary scholarship.
posted by Miko at 11:25 AM on September 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Tracking climate change through the journals of Henry David Thoreau
posted by thetortoise at 12:54 PM on September 12, 2015

One could characterize how Kary Mullis helped invent/improve upon the PCR technique as "lateral thinking" - he was driving down the highway looking at the dashed lines while high on LSD. Please note, however, that like James Watson, he does not necessarily have the best post-Nobel reputation.
posted by cnanderson at 2:29 PM on September 12, 2015

I'm fond of this story, about how a British postgrad student with no academic background, an infamous mathematician, and a psychologist worked together to blow huge holes in one of the major tenets of positive psychology.
posted by ActionPopulated at 6:13 PM on September 12, 2015 [5 favorites]

Seconding Miko, the Scholar Adventurers is indeed a fun read, and has a memorable account of the discovery of James Boswell's papers and journals in the early twentieth century. You can get it freely in PDF form via the Ohio State University Press website.
posted by Sonny Jim at 7:41 AM on September 13, 2015

Here's a section from (philosopher of science ) Carl Hempel's description of how (obstetric surgeon) Ignaz Semmelweis worked out what was responsible for childbed fever. Hempel's description makes it sound like a feat of scientific detective work:

"Various psychological explanations were attempted. One of them noted that the First Division was so arranged that a priest bearing the last sacrament to a dying woman bad to pass through five wards before reaching the sickroom beyond: the appearance of the priest, preceded by an attendant ringing a bell, was held to have a terrifying and debilitating effect upon the patients in the wards and thus to make them more likely victims of childbed fever. In the Second Division, this adverse factor was absent, since the priest had direct access to the sickroom. Semmelweis decided to test this conjecture. He persuaded the priest to come by a roundabout route and without ringing of the bell, in order to reach the sick chamber silently and unobserved. But the mortality in the First Division did not decrease. "

The podcast Radiolab regularly includes stories of scientific detective work (you could look through posts on the blog / feed with the tag 'science' or 'experiment').
posted by Joeruckus at 10:04 AM on September 13, 2015

Response by poster: I'm really looking forward to reading all of these! Thanks!
posted by ontheradio at 2:35 PM on September 13, 2015

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