Making discoveries is different for each scientist who makes them. I can only say what was true for me. And different discoveries have different qualities, not all such experiences are alike.
Discovery is often a gesture of disrespect. One often must believe that one has found something that has been overlooked or was interpreted wrongly, and both of those imply that previous workers were not working at full potential. We are taught to learn by accepting knowledge and interpretations, so discovery is a departure from the typical learning process, and represents a moment when we become the creators of information, not the recipients. Discovery is a kind of nonsocial (or at least nonconformist) act. Discovery can even anti-social, because the discoverer by implication inevitably but unintentionally declares himself superior to colleagues.
Even if a discovery is based on a fossil never seen before, or one finds a species new to science in a place never visited by a biologist before, one must have confidence to believe that nobody has ever seen this item (or seen it for what it is) previously. That requires self-confidence. In a number of instances, one may be seeing something unusual that has, in fact, been seen before, but if one dismisses the event instead of pursuing it as though it could indeed be something entirely new, one will never make a discovery.
Discovery is risk-taking. Scientists who wish to feel comfortable at all times about their work, who wish to feel their interpretations are always correct and complete, who wish to make definitive statements, or who wish never to be contradicted, are unlikely to make discoveries.
Discovery does, it’s true, happen to the prepared mind. But if one expects discoveries to happen only after one knows patterns thoroughly, it’s too late. One should assume that something novel could come along at any time during an investigation.
Discovery has been described as finding something that “didn’t fit” what was known at a particular time. This is probably an accurate description for most discoveries. One must be able to distinguish, however, between a minor variation within a pattern and something that represents a greater departure, outside of expected variations. Not always easy.
There are microdiscoveries in any field as well as discoveries of more pervasive importance. Microdiscoveries can be just as much fun to make, and the kind of mind that makes more important discoveries is also likely to make microdiscoveries. And the probable value of any discovery is not certain at the time it is made.
Discoveries are not made in a single step. Sometimes one must look for more examples, examine more material, and even be willing to put an idea aside until the right comparisons can be made. Sometimes one must argue with one’s self, lay down alternative explanations for what has been observed, and certify a hypothesis in stages. One must even be willing to make mistakes in interpretation, and one must be willing to recognize those mistakes rather than perpetuate them.
Not all scientists are equally capable of making discoveries. Discovery is a form of risk-taking, and some people are risk-averse and are comfortable only in working within pre-existing frameworks instead of creating new frameworks. There probably is always a shortage of ideas in science; data is easy to acquire, but valid new ideas are always in short supply. Discoveries are more likely to be made by those more deeply immersed in a field. Those who limit their commitment to science to official working hours are less likely to make discoveries.
Discoveries are not made in conferences, scientific meetings, or in conversations. Discoveries are the production of a single person. Yes, others may help in tangential ways, but at any moment, one person is advancing the process. Discovery is a form of individualism.
When presenting discoveries in writing or in person, one should expect the discovery to be disbelieved or its importance to be minimized. Readers or members of an audience must be willing to concede that the discoverer has made an advance that they have not made (and would like to have made but probably could not make), so acknowledging a discovery is essentially humiliating and all people tend to avoid humiliation. Established people within a field may even feel that having believed or taught the status quo for a period of time, there is no advantage in abandoning it (“Let’s wait to see if it’s confirmed”). Envy is often implicitly involved in the reaction of the audience to the discoverer. Younger people who are not yet “colleagues” need not feel humiliated or envious; in fact, a younger person supporting a valid discovery by a more experienced scientist shows admirable good sense.
Discoveries in science are in some cases the product of novel syntheses between fields or subfields. Thus, being willing to know and deal with more than a single field or subfield is always advantageous. That kind of adventurousness is not possessed by all in equal degrees, and so is a personal characteristic. Most scientists feel more comfortable as members of a single guild (e.g., plant taxonomist). Employability in science has often depended on conformity to particular labels, whereas the enterprise of discovery, to the degree that it involves synthesis, does not respect labels.
The amount of evidence given to support a discovery can vary enormously: from a single example to a large body of evidence. The acceptance of a new idea depends on the nature of the evidence adduced to support it, and how the presentation of that evidence is made. And the timing and ease of acceptance may depend on marketing skills that have nothing to do with discovery skills
Knowing how others made discoveries probably will not help you make discoveries, but it may make you feel more confident that you can make your own. Unfortunately, books and professors who talk about discoveries often make them seem like the work of specially talented individuals. In fact, those who discover are just people immersed in a field who know what has already been found, and therefore can see something new.
The scientific tradition says that one must answer a scientific question. That involves data gathering, and intelligent positioning of the data with regard to that question. But how does one discover a question, how does one make a hypothesis? Personal enterprise, inventiveness, and vision cannot be taught. They do, however, thrive more often in scientists who are deeply involved in science than in those who limit their degree of involvement. Hypotheses don’t happen to beginning students, unfortunately—they happen once patterns begin to develop and one thinks of alternative explanations for the patterns one develops.
Younger scientists may, unfortunately, believe that the majority of good discoveries have already been made. If anyone reads this website and thinks that I have made more than my share of good discoveries, I won’t be offended. However, careers as exciting and rewarding as mine will be happening indefinitely in science. A satisfying career does not consist wholly of discovery. I did not create the idea of long-distance dispersal, but I did do some original work in that field. Working on small portions of major phenomena can be quite rewarding, and “microdiscoveries” are immensely satisfying. Scientific discoveries cannot be ranked in terms of importance, although we would all agree that some discoveries are of much more basic significance than others. All of my discoveries in wood anatomy would be regarded as unimportant by the world at large. The relative unimportance of my discoveries has a beneficial aspect: I can continue enjoying making such findings for the rest of my career. And participation in a field, no matter whether discoveries are involved or not, is always satisfying.