Most scientists are rarely content until they can say that they have planned for all eventualities. But no matter how hard you try, lab work will often throw you a curve ball, turning up all manner of unexpected curiosities. Yes, it’s true the “best laid plans o’mice and researchers gang aft a gley”*! However, there is no need to despair, for buried in the annals of scientific literature are a number of compelling tales where odd results and downright stupidity have actually lead to some pretty ground-breaking discoveries. So, here are five of my favorite examples of scientific serendipity.
5) The artificial pacemaker:
The first implantable pacemaker
The first implantable pacemaker was invented and developed by electrical engineer and prolific inventor Wilson Greatbatch. But this is no ordinary tale of academic prowess. Unfortunate and clumsy scientists can take heart to learn that, despite Greatbatch’s impressive academic repertoire, it was actually a technical mistake which lead him towards this life-saving invention.
In 1956, Greatbatch was working on a device to record heart-rhythms when he accidentally connected an incorrect electrical component (for the geeky this was an ill-fitting resistor). This mistake meant that his device actually emitted electrical activity instead of recording it. Greatbatch worked on miniaturising and testing his creation and by 1960 the first artificial pacemaker was implanted into a human patient. The recipient, a 77 year old man went on to live for a further 18 months.
This is a great example of when a technical error actually translated into a ground-breaking discovery. But be careful, 99% of the time such mistakes are still significantly more likely to end in blown fuses and angry screaming than medical breakthroughs!
4) The discovery of penicillin.
No list of accidental scientific discoveries could be complete without the tale of Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin. Fleming, who at the time was described as a careless lab technician (charming), returned from holiday to find that one of his badly tended experiments had grown mould. Although in this instance, his inability to maintain a sterile work environment actually revolutionised modern medicine.
Fleming noticed that the Staphylococcus bacteria in this particular sample did not grow around the mould. Indeed he noted that the Staphylococcus colonies became transparent and were obviously dying. The mould was soon identified as a rare strain of Penicillium notatum, which appeared to secrete a compound capable of stopping bacterial growth. In fact Fleming’s mucky lab practices had lead him to stumble upon the first known antibiotic – a discovery which has since changed the course of medicine and allowed for previously life-threatening diseases to be completely curable.
Fleming himself is quoted as saying: “One sometimes finds what one is not looking for. When I woke up just after dawn on Sept. 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did” (he was obviously a humble chap).
3) Cosmic background radiation.
Any scientist can tell you how annoying inconsistent or noisy data can be, but not many could boast that noise actually won them a Nobel Prize.
In 1965, Arno A. Penzias and Robert W. Wilson were working for Bell Laboratories using a sensitive horn antenna to detect low levels of microwave radiation. As they scanned the sky with this device their findings were constantly overshadowed by a low level of background “noise”. Both scientists assumed that this persistent “noise” was an unwanted artifact and tried a huge range of techniques to eliminate it but their attempts were to no avail. However, after much head-scratching they finally discovered that another group of scientists from Princeton had already predicted that such “noise” should be detectable as a remnant from the Big Bang and were about to start looking for this themselves.
So it turned out that the annoying artifact that Penzias and Wilson spent so much time trying to eliminate was actually background radiation left over from the Big BangIf only experimental noise was always this interesting!
2) Drunk scientists discover wine improves super conductance
Contrary to the popular mathematician’s saying ‘don’t drink and derive’, it seems that, in some cases, a little bit of alcohol (or perhaps a lot) can actually facilitate scientific discovery.
A few years ago, scientists at Japan’s National Institute for Materials Science got a little bit tipsy at an office party and, instead of stealing office supplies, they decided to head back to the lab and do a few unauthorised experiments.
Their lab was working to develop a new type of superconductor by soaking a compound in hot water and ethanol for several hours. But, after a few drinks, one bright spark decided that it would be much more fun to see what happened when they instead soaked this compound in whatever left-over booze they could find from the party.
Amazingly the next morning, alongside the customary hangover, the researchers also discovered that commercially available alcohol seemed significantly better at improving super conductance than anything they would commonly use in the lab. Indeed, using lab- grade ethanol improved the material’s superconductivity by about 15%, while red wine improved it by almost 65%. These results were certainly not expected but were, without doubt, a big step forward for these scientists – I think it may be time for another party!
1) Common worming tablet inhibits growth of cancer cells.
Scientists from Johns Hopkins University’s East Baltimore medical campus were left scratching their heads a few years ago when techniques used to grow tumors in mice failed to work on one particular group of research animals. After a number of failed attempts, the researchers decided that there was something kooky about these mice and set about finding what it was.
It turned out that these specific mice had been treated with a cheap, mass-produced, medication used to prevent pinworm infections and that this had been preventing tumor growth in these animals. Spurred on by this unexpected breakthrough, researchers soon found that a related drug – mebendazole – was particularly effective at treating an aggressive type of brain tumor (glioblastoma multiforme).
Years down the line and new drugs, stemming from this unexpected discovery, are now being trialed on terminally ill cancer patients with the hope that this will lead to more widespread use.
So there you have it. If you want to be a top-notch scientist remember that keeping your workspace sterile is totally overrated, regular office parties are a must and don’t forget to love your noise – you never know where it may lead you.
Post by: Sarah Fox
*Often go awry.