“Accidental” Discoveries, or rather: “Serendipitous Observations”

Name the greatest of all inventors: Accident.
Mark Twain

There is an interesting video on YouTube about 24 Unintended Scientific Discoveries by mental_floss.

And yes, the discoveries seem a lot like that Mark Twain quote in the beginning of this posting. However, I think that Isaac Asimov is closer to the truth:

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny…”
Isaac Asimov

After all, all these people were knowledgeable enough to notice that something strange or unexpected happened, curious enough to follow the interesting discovery despite having other plans/assigned tasks, and were able to focus enough on it to find out what they were dealing with. The discoveries did not fall ready-made into their laps (or labs), they had to understand what was happening, replicate it, make it useful in everyday life. They made history, others didn’t.

In this sense, instead of ‘accidental’, the term “unintended” is probably a better word for these discoveries. It is used for the title of that video, although in the video itself, the term ‘accidental’ is frequently used. I also like Wikipedia’s entry regarding Penicillin, where they talk about Fleming’s “serendipitous observation. I think this describes the issue much better.

So, be sure to stay curious and alert to notice when something profound happens. After all, for the most famous “serendipitous observation” — Penicillin — there were people who noticed the antibiotic qualities earlier than Fleming. For example, in 1877 Caminhoá described the antibiotic activity of Penicillium in his book in the section “Useful fungi, harmful and curious”. But apparently, he did not follow up on the issue, focused on it to develop a world-changing medicine. So that had to wait until Fleming in 1928. Same with the other discoveries. There might have been countless people who had the same experiences, yet reacted ‘normal’ or were squelched by the environment. You can just imagine how it could have turned out in these cases:

  • Viagra: Test subjects for a heart medicament (against angina) reported ‘side-effects’.
    Normal reaction: “Uh, oh, we gave test subjects with angina something to have more sex. Let’s just pretend this never happened and give the subjects some money to shut up. What? They want the pills … okay, let them have a batch, that probably solves the problem faster and they die happy.”
    Squelcher: “We are a respectable drug company. We don’t do sex.”
  • Plastic: Mixing some stuff.
    Normal reaction: “Great, this looks like something made in China.”
    Squelcher: “It lacks the charm of wood.”
  • Saccharin: Forgot to wash his hands, tasted sweet.
    Normal reaction: “Mhmm … sweet. I hope it is not poisonous. I wonder what’s for dinner …”
    Squelcher: “Stop sucking your thumb!”
  • Microwave Oven: Radar melted the chocolate bar in his pocket.
    Normal reaction: “Uh-oh, there go my chances of having kids. Ah, well …”
    Squelcher: “Uh … you know that your pants are … soiled.”
  • X-ray: Noticed glow in lab.
    Normal reaction: “Now what?!? Argh … need some sleep …”
    Squelcher: “X-rays? How can you name something ‘unknown’? Do you know so little?”
  • Radioactivity: Photographic film was exposed without sunlight (by uranium).
    Normal reaction: “That sodding no-good merchant sold me an already exposed film!”
    Squelcher: “Are you sure you didn’t already expose it yourself? I’m just saying, it would be embarrassing if you made a mistake … think about your reputation.”
  • Vulcanized Rubber: Dropped mixture of sulfur, rubber and lead on hot stove.
    Normal reaction: “Eeewweeee … that smells funny … and pervy …”
    Squelcher: “Didn’t I tell you not to use my kitchen?!? Who’s gonna clean up this mess? How can I cook here!”
  • Vaseline: Noticed workers complaining about some stuff clogging up drills.
    Normal reaction: “Let’s get rid of this stuff, I want to get the oil. Oil is where the money is.”
    Squelcher: “You want to put stuff from oilfield drills on open wounds? Are your crazy or what? You’ll never get that past the FDA.”
  • Pacemaker: Wrong transistor, gave off electric impulses to stimulate heart.
    Normal reaction: “Ooops … [to patient] I mean, never mind.”
    Squelcher: “We don’t want our patients to leave. If they stay in the hospital, we can provide better care (and make more money).”
  • Strikeable Match: Tried to scratch off some stuff and it burst into flames.
    Normal reaction: “Holla! Waow, that could have gone wrong …”
    Squelcher: “John! Are you playing with fire again!??!!”
  • Velcro: Cocklebur attached to his dogs fur.
    Normal reaction: “I hate nature! Hmm, perhaps I should have gotten a shaved poodle …”
    Squelcher: “Great, that’s just what we need. More stuff sticking to our clothes.”
  • Teflon: Looked for refrigerant.
    Normal reaction: “Nah, that doesn’t work either. At least it slides down quickly through the garbage chute.”
    Squelcher: “You had one job, Plunkett! We needed that new refrigerant. If you miss your work targets again you won’t stick around here for much longer.”
  • Gunpowder: Looking for an elixir for eternal life.
    Normal reaction: “Ooookay, that was one step in the completely wrong direction …”
    Squelcher: “Be quiet down there!”
  • Dynamite: Nitroglycerine can broke and the contents were absorbed by kieselguhr.
    Normal reaction: “Ooops. My life just flashed before me, maybe I should be doing something more noble with it.”
    Squelcher: “Do you have any idea what this means for our insurance policy! We were accident free for 15 days. Quick, hide the evidence and let’s pretend it did never happen.”
  • Nuclear Fission: Trying to make super-heavy atoms.
    Normal reaction: “Damn, what’s that stuff. Probably only some waste … how important can it be.”
    Squelcher: “Great, now you broke the nuclei.”
  • Mauve: Looking for Malaria treatment and discovered new color.
    Normal reaction: “Strange color, but not as beautiful as green or Bordeaux red. Anyway …”
    Squelcher: “Great work for humanity, Perkins. What do you want to do with that color, paint the walls in the Malaria hospitals with it?”
  • Safety Glass: Dropped coated glass flask which did not break.
    Normal reaction: “Puh, lucky me … anyway, back to work …”
    Squelcher: “Do you want to put glaziers out of their jobs? Just don’t drop the flask again …”
  • Corn Flakes: Forgot some boiled wheat that got flaky.
    Normal reaction: “I hope I don’t get sick. Perhaps we could sell this but … nah, too much trouble in fabrication …”
    Squelcher: “This is like bread from last week. Remember your chores next time!”
  • Olestra: Looking for nutritional supplement for infants, found fat substitute with zero calories.
    Normal reaction: “This is so not what I was looking for.”
    Squelcher: “Are you nuts? Zero calories? Do you want to starve the children?”
  • Super Glue: Trying to make clear plastic for gun-sights.
    Normal reaction: “My hand is sticking to the wall. MY HAND IS STICKING TO THE WALL!!!! GET ME OUTTA HERE!!!!”
    Squelcher: “We are in a world war. Do not waste precious resources, get us these gun sights!!”
  • Post-it Note: Trying to find a strong adhesive, came up with weak, repositionable adhesive.
    Normal reaction: “Hrrrrm, another day wasted without a success.”
    Squelcher: “Weak, Silver, very weak. Make it stick next time!”
  • Anesthesia: Using ether + nitrous oxide as recreational drug.
    Normal reaction: “[sniff] Hahahah … hahahahaha … [sniff] … hahahahahahahah …”
    Squelcher: “We are a respectable hospital, not a drug den!”
  • Slinky: Looking for a measure of horsepower for naval vessels. Knocked a spring over that kept moving.
    Normal reaction: “Cool … I hope nobody has seen me playing around.”
    Squelcher: “What the … we are the military James — and you are fired! Fired!”
  • Penicillin: Staphylococcus plate culture left open, mold has contaminated it, and the bacteria were unable to grow near the mold.
    Normal reaction: “Who the hell left that culture open! Damn it, another culture down the drain. We’re working with viruses here. Think, people! Do you want to get sick!”
    Squelcher: “Mold? You want to put mold in the human body? What are you using?”

So, be awake when a serendipitous moment presents itself.

Categories: Doing Science, Generating Ideas, Improving your Creativity, Inspiration, Learning to do Science, Science, Something to Think About, The World


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