Scientific Serendipity

Serendipity is a term for discovery by dumb luck. The word was created by Horace Walpole in 1754 based on a Persian tale about the Three Princes of Serendip, who wandered through life continually stumbling across good luck. Much of scientific discovery has come about through serendipity rather than forethought.

This is not to say that scientific training is immaterial. Noble Prize wining scientist Louis Pasteur, inventor of the eponymous process- pasteurization, said “fortune favors the prepared mind.” Scientific discoveries whether by luck or purpose both require scientific training to ask the right questions, and properly interpret the findings of investigations, especially if the result is unexpected. The following stories are just a few taken from physics, and chemistry, and biology.

The detection of radio waves from space began in the 1930s. Sources of the radio waves (microwaves) varied but was first observed from the Milky Way galaxy. In 1964 two astronomers at Bell Labs were testing a new sensitive radio antenna but could could not find the cause of a constant hum. At one point they thought it was due to a pair of pigeons that had taken up residence in the horn of their antenna. They cleared it out but the hum remained, regardless of where they pointed it. Unbeknownst to them at the time, they had discovered the Cosmic Microwave Background, a form of radiation that provides the best evidence for the creation of our universe 13.8 billion years ago.

In the mid 19th century dyes for fabrics were few and expensive, being obtained from natural sources. Royal Purple, so called as only the royals could afford it, was a dye obtained from a sea snail. A young chemist in England had been charged with developing a synthesis of Quinine, used to treat malaria. He was not able to make Quinine, but during his investigations using coal tar as a starting material, he ended up making the first of what are called aniline dyes. This accidental discovery began a global industry.

In 18th century Italy a physician was performing experiments on frogs. He took a dissected leg which was held to the table with brass clips and began cutting with a steel scalpel. When the steel scalpel accidentally touched a brass clip it caused the frog’s leg to twitch. When dissimilar metals come in contact it can cause a electrical current, essentially a simple battery. The current that induced the twitch in the frog’s leg was the first evidence of an animal’s nervous system.

More modern examples involve a couple of synthetic sweeteners. Aspertame, possibly better know by the trade name Nutrasweet was discovered when a chemist produced it as an intermediate on the way to another more complex compound that was to be used to treat ulcers. When he went to make a notation in his lab book, he licked his finger to turn a page. He noticed the intense sweetness of the compound and a billion dollar industry ensued. Another sweetener, Splenda was also discovered by accident. A graduate student was asked to test a particular chlorinated compound. He misunderstood the instruction and came back to report the he tasted, not tested the compound and found it to be quite sweet.

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