Aug 12, 2011

When Stroke of Luck strikes Science….

Some of the greatest discoveries have been made entirely by accident, and if it weren’t for many of these serendipitous inventions and discoveries, life would be very different. Who among us would have thought that poor lab upkeep would yield a breakthrough in science? Alexander Fleming didn’t clean his work station and when he returned, he found a strange strain of fungus that didn’t allow bacteria to grow around it; this was later developed into the Penicillin we rely on today.

Open-mindedness of researchers has led to many instrumental discoveries in science. In the 17th century, the chance discovery of the anti-malarial drug Quinine may be more legend than fact, but it is nevertheless a noteworthy story. A brainstorm struck Edward Jenner when a milkmaid told him that people who contracted cowpox, a harmless disease easily picked up during contact with cows, never fell ill with smallpox, leading to the fascinating development of the Smallpox Vaccine. Researchers were working on Viagra to treat angina pectoris, but realized it had little effect on heart and brought a greater response in other parts of the body. Minoxidil was developed to be an antihypertensive drug, but turned out to be useful in hair growth.

The hormone Insulin’s discovery was also by chance: German physicians Joseph von Mering and Oscar Minkowski removed the pancreas from a healthy dog in order to study the role of the pancreas in digestion. Several days after the operation, the doctors happened to notice a swarm of flies feeding on a puddle of the dog's urine; the flies were attracted to the high sugar content in the urine. The doctors knew that they had created the dog’s diabetic condition by removing its pancreas and thus understood, for the first time, the relationship between the pancreas and diabetes. After elaborate testing procedures, von Mering and Minkowski concluded that a healthy pancreas must secrete a substance that controls the metabolism of sugar in the body. 

Absent-mindedness of a scientist resulted in the creation of a life-saving medical device, the Pacemaker. Wilson Greatbatch was working on a circuit to help record fast heart sounds. He pulled a 1 megaohm resistor instead of a 10,000-ohm one; it pulsed for 1.8 milliseconds and then stopped for one second and repeated. The sound was as old as man – a perfect heartbeat.

Also of note is Henri Becquerel’s surprise discovery. He ran a series of experiments to see if naturally fluorescent minerals produced X-rays. He left his experiment wrapped up in the drawer and waited for sunny day, and when he returned, realized that this rock of uranium left an imprint on the photographic plates without first being exposed to sunlight, revealing a unique characteristic of this rock. He later discovered Radioactivity while working with Marie and Pierre Curie.

Isaac Asimov said “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka! I found it!,' but 'That's funny...'” Leo Hendrik Baekeland, a home chemist, wanted to make a shellac alternative, but instead his experiments produced a moldable material that can take high temperatures without distorting – Plastic. After a long day of working with coal tar Constantin Fahlberg forgot to wash his hands. The rolls his wife made tasted sweet to him but not to her, so the next day he started tasting his work and found the sweet spot — Saccharin. Jamie Link was working on a silicon chip when it burst, but the tiny fragments where still functioning as sensors, resulting in Smart Dust, which is currently used to monitor the purity of water.

Stories of accidental discoveries in the kitchen are never-ending. The Microwave was one such dramatic discovery: it was originally used as a radar system during World War II to support Nazi planes, but when Percy Spencer stood in front of it and the chocolate bar in his pocket melted, he realized he had made a useful discovery. It is now a Kitchen Revolution. Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton was was working to cure headache when he mixed a few uncommon ingredients to create what we now know as Coke. A customer’s complaint on soggy French fries inspired George Crum to invent Potato Chips. The birth of Popsicles happened because Frank Epperson left his drink outside on a cold night.

What we now use to temporarily patch internal wounds on the battlefield, as well as repair space shuttle engines, Super Glue, was also a fortuitous discovery. Fred Joymer and Harry Coover mistakenly stuck two lenses together when they were trying to make a temperature-resistant coating for jet cockpits. Spencer Silver failed to create a competitor to that accidental invention, but instead succeeded in creating a weak adhesive that could be easily lifted off. This was adapted by Arthur Fry for the invention of Post-it notes, an invaluable and ubiquitous office tool.

Accidents and mistakes are very common in everyday life, and it only takes an inquiring mind to unleash an idea that may become the next invention we can’t live without. From the age-old caveman to the intrepid scientist now, accidental discoveries have always been a part of science. To quote Matthew Cain, “In the face of such strong evidence, it’s clear that serendipity is a crucial part of the research and creative processes of any inventor”.
Written by Shalini P. Burra for The All Results Journals. 


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