It seemed like a game of whack-a-mole — or whack-a-molecule, to be more precise. A microscopic compound would rise up from the murk of the inner ear, heralded as the molecule that might explain how we hear. Researchers would get excited. There would be news reports. Then, a paper would disprove the hypothesis and knock that promising protein back into obscurity.

For David Corey, that pattern is personal. He started tinkering with inner ear cells in 1975, when he was 24. Almost 30 years later, he moved his research into a Harvard Medical School office that had previously housed two Nobel prize winners: one who’d helped untangle our sense of sight, and the other our sense of smell. In 2004, he’d published his own breakthrough in Nature, detailing the discovery of a molecule in our ear cells that seemed to translate sound waves into electrical currents our brains can understand. Then, in 2006, it all fell apart. Mice born without the protein should have been deaf. But when he played a loud clapping-like noise for them, they flinched.

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