In this second series of The Serendipity of Science, writer and broadcaster Simon Singh uncovers more stories of surprise and luck in the world of science. Scientific progress is commonly held to be the result of rigorous research and analysis. However even today, a surprising number of discoveries owe a lot to chance.
1. Material Milestones and Fantastic Plastics
Man’s attempts to manipulate and recreate materials found in the natural world have shaped the world we live in. And many of our successes owe a lot to luck. Simon visits a rubber mill, and hears the tale of Charles Goodyear, who in the 1840s discovered the process known as vulcanisation. The man whose name graces a thousand tyres worked out how to turn rubber from an awkward material which melted in warm weather into a useful substance, when he accidentally dropped a piece on a stove. And thus began an age in which natural substances could be altered through industrial processes. Continuing the rubber theme, the artificial rubber neoprene was a serendipitous find, made when a lab assistant left a chemical impurity in a test-tube over a weekend. A week and half later, in the same laboratory, the first artificial fibre was created, also by accident - a development which would lead to nylon. The significance of these finds was never realised by the scientist in charge, Wallace Carrothers. This brilliant man was the first person to truly understand the chemistry of these long chain molecules - polymers - but he tragically committed suicide before the importance of his work was recognised.
As chemists learned to manipulate natural and man-made polymers, the surprises kept coming. Just after WW2, chemist Harry Coover discovered superglue when the polymer he was examining got stuck in his lab instruments. Quite independently, superglue lead to another fortuitous find in the late 70s, when Northampton policeman Laurie Wood realised that fumes from the glue condensed around his fingerprints. He’d stumbled on a forensic technique which is now used worldwide. And in 2000, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to three scientists who worked out how to make plastics conduct electricity. Their work began when a foreign researcher mistranslated instructions and added a chemical a thousand times more concentrated than usual to an experiment. Co-winners Alan Heeger and Alan McDiarmid tell their story.
This programme features some explosive discoveries. Simon hears about the bacteria thought by its discoverers to be useless, but which turned out to be essential in making the shell propellant cordite during WW1; and meets a marine geologist who was looking for underwater salt deposits and instead found a huge meteorite crater. The biggest meteor impact of all, the one which killed the dinosaurs, left its mark in Mexico’s Yucutan Peninsula. That crater too, was found as a result of serendipity, when NASA scientists were talking to a journalist, who suddenly realised that the weird buried volcano he’d heard about at oil exploration conference a decade earlier might be more significant...
And from the biggest explosive events the planet has witnessed to the smallest. A powerful micro-explosive was discovered by a member of research team examining microchips made from a porous form of silicon. While cutting one of these silicon wafers in half, it unexpectedly blew up in his face, like a cap gun going off. Porous silicon is now being developed for use as a trigger for car airbags, or even microscopic robots.
One field in which serendipity plays a very large part is medicine - many new drugs have been the result of accidental discoveries. In this final programme, Simon hears about an early form of anaesthesia using the gas ethylene. In 1908, carnation growers in Chicago asked a pair of botanists to find out why their flowers wouldn’t bloom. The culprit was the ethylene gas used to light the greenhouses. Concern about whether it could harm animals and humans led to tests which found that far from being harmful, it had anaesthetic effects.
The most well-known example of medical serendipity has to be Fleming’s discovery of Penicillin, when a mould landed on his culture plate and killed off his bacteria. Other antibiotics have also been accidental finds. A whole new source of antibiotics was uncovered in the fifties. The story began when an Italian biochemist watched his dog have a fit after catching a toad. He took the toad into his lab, and found in its venom an incredible range of biologically active chemicals - including some unknown antibiotics. The substances secreted in the skin of frogs and toads are now great hopes as a source of many new medicines.
And one of the most famous new drugs of the last decade - Viagra - owes its existence to serendipity. It started its life as a potential treatment for angina, and was being tested in clinical trials. As an angina treatment, it was pretty useless, but then the researchers began to get reports of some unexpected side effects...
Simon Singh is a well-known writer and broadcaster. In 1996 he directed the award winning documentary Fermat’s Last Theorem. He then wrote the book of the same name, the only book about mathematics to be a No.1 bestseller. More recently he has written about cryptography in The Code Book, serialised on Radio 4, which formed the basis of a Channel Four series entitled The Science of Secrecy.