Science can be a process of two extremes. On the one hand, successful studies and experiments involve careful planning, accuracy, and meticulous attention to detail. At the same time, key insights and breakthroughs often happen when the unexpected (and sometimes undesirable) occurs. Here are four stories that illustrate the power of surprise and coincidence, and yes even failure and mistakes, in science.
Post-It Notes: Spencer Silver was a chemist working on ways to develop a super-strong adhesive. Instead, he created acrylate copolymer which is an abnormally weak adhesive. Undeterred, Silver investigated this compound and observed two interesting properties. First, acrylate copolymer’s adhesive spheres stuck best to tangent surfaces. This meant that anything coated in the stuff could be perpendicularly attached and then easily peeled off. Second, these adhesive spheres did not break or dissolve easily, which meant they could be reused. Silver continued to discuss possible uses for his not-so-strong adhesive with coworkers. Finally, 9 years after the initial discovery, a fellow chemist suggested painting it on paper to make re-stickable bookmarks and the first post-it note was born!
Microwave: Percy Spencer was a self-taught engineer and inventor developing radar detection equipment using vacuum tubes. One day after conducting several experiments with an active magnetron he noticed that the snack in his back pocket was melted (some accounts say it was a chocolate bar others the 1940s equivalent of a granola bar.) Either way, Spencer thought this interesting and began bringing in other foods and holding them close to the magnetron. When he quickly popped a corn kernel, he knew he had discovered something special. Check out the full story here.
Safety Glass: This life-saving invention came about due to a laboratory mishap that many of us are familiar with. The French chemist Edouard Benedictus was conducting an experiment involving cellulose nitrate and had a glass flask coated with the stuff. This flask was accidentally knocked off his lab bench. However, instead of shattering and spreading sharp pieces of glass across the floor, the flask broke but kept its shape. Benedictus quickly switched experimental gears and spent the next few months recreating and mass producing this new glass. The final product was first used in the face shields of WWI gas masks and then as windshields in cars. Today an updated version of the invention is still found in most cars.
Saccharin: The first artificial sweetener was accidentally discovered in 1879 by Constantin Fahlberg (through a colossal disregard for lab safety rules)! Dr. Fahlberg had wrapped up his research for the day and was home eating dinner when he noticed his bread roll tasted incredibly sweet. He ruled out sweet bread and determined that the sweetness was from a light powder on his hands. His next conclusion was that he had forgotten to wash his hands post-experiment. At this point, he did not head to the nearest emergency room or even wash out his mouth, instead, he went to the lab. Here he systematically tasted all the compounds that he had created during the day until he finally figured out that the mystery sweet powder was a coal tar derivative called anhydroorthosulphaminebenzoic acid. Fahlberg nicknamed the substance saccharin which means resembling sugar and patented it in 1886. The rest is sweet history.
Crucial to all these discoveries were BOTH the accident itself and the discoverer’s response to it. The scientists in these stories all found informative data in these unpredicted events and then had the instinct, determination, and skills to investigate further. Want to hear about a more recent accidental science discovery? Check out this story about NPR’s Golden Mole Award winner or find out about this competition for “the best happy accident in science” here.