Perspectives on Science 29 (4):359-387 (2021)
AbstractIn 1991, Linda Buck and Richard Axel identified the multigene family expressing odor receptors. Their discovery transformed research on olfaction overnight, and Buck and Axel were awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Behind this success lies another, less visible study about the methodological ingenuity of Buck. This hidden tale holds the key to answering a fundamental question in discovery analysis: What makes specific discovery tools fit their tasks? Why do some strategies turn out to be more fruitful than others? The fit of a method with an experimental system often establishes the success of a discovery. However, the underlying reasoning of discovery is hard to codify. These difficulties point toward an element of discovery analysis routinely sidelined as a mere biographical element in the philosophical analysis of science: the individual discoverer’s role. I argue that the individual researcher is not a replaceable epistemic element in discovery analysis. This article draws on contemporary oral history, including interviews with Buck and other actors key to developments in late 1980s olfaction.
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