Science and Technology Advance through Surprise

Breakthrough discoveries and inventions involve unexpected combinations of contents including problems, methods, and natural entities, and also diverse contexts such as journals, subfields, and conferences. Drawing on data from tens of millions of research papers, patents, and researchers, we construct models that predict more than 95% of next year’s content and context combinations with embeddings constructed from high-dimensional stochastic block models, where the improbability of new combinations itself predicts up to half of the likelihood that they will gain outsized citations and major awards. Most of these breakthroughs occur when problems in one field are unexpectedly solved by researchers from a distant other. These findings demonstrate the critical role of surprise in advance, and enable evaluation of scientific institutions ranging from education and peer review to awards in supporting it.


Science and Technology Advance through Surprise
Feng Shi, James Evans