Sometimes, scientific discovery is just a matter of sitting down and using the tools of "connected science" already available to us. Stories like this one underscore the need for generalists:
Don Swanson seems an unlikely person to make medical discoveries. A retired but still active information scientist at the University of Chicago, Swanson has no medical training, does no medical experiments, and has never had a laboratory. Despite this, he’s made several significant medical discoveries. One of the earliest was in 1988, when he investigated migraine headaches, and discovered evidence suggesting that migraines are caused by magnesium deficiency. At the time the idea was a surprise to other scientists studying migraines, but Swanson’s idea was subsequently tested and confirmed in multiple therapeutic trials by traditional medical groups.
How is it that someone without any medical training could make such a discovery? Although Swanson had none of the conventional credentials of medical research, what he did have was a clever idea. Swanson believed that scientific knowledge had grown so vast that important connections between subjects were going unnoticed, not because they were especially subtle or hard to grasp, but because no one had a broad enough understanding of science to notice those connections: in a big enough haystack, even a 50-foot needle may be hard to find. Swanson hoped to uncover such hidden connections using a medical search engine called Medline, which makes it possible to search millions of scientific papers in medicine—you can think of Medline as a high-level map of human medical knowledge. He began his work by using Medline to search the scientific literature for connections between migraines and other conditions. Here are two examples of connections he found: (1) migraines are associated with epilepsy; and (2) migraines are associated with blood clots forming more easily than usual. Of course, migraines have been the subject of much research, and so those are just two of a much longer list of connections that he found. But Swanson didn’t stop with that list. Instead, he took each of the associated conditions and then used Medline to find further connections to that condition. He learned that, for example, (1) magnesium deficiency increases susceptibility to epilepsy; and (2) magnesium deficiency makes blood clot more easily. Now, when he began his work Swanson had no idea he’d end up connecting migraines to magnesium deficiency. But once he’d found a few papers suggesting such two-stage connections between magnesium deficiency and migraines, he narrowed his search to concentrate on magnesium deficiency, eventually finding eleven such two-stage connections to migraines. Although this wasn’t the traditional sort of evidence favored by medical scientists, it nonetheless made a compelling case that migraines are connected to magnesium deficiency. Before Swanson’s work a few papers had tentatively (and mostly in passing) suggested that magnesium deficiency might be connected to migraines. But the earlier work wasn’t compelling, and was ignored by most scientists. By contrast, Swanson’s evidence was highly suggestive, and it was soon followed by therapeutic trials that confirmed the migraine-magnesium connection.