The Unintentional Discoveries: Serendipity And Science

by V.S. Ravi - Oct 30, 2021 06:00 AM +05:30 IST
The Unintentional Discoveries: Serendipity And Science(Flickr)
  • How often has serendipity played a role in the most important discoveries of science?

One of the most hotly-debated issues in the history of science is the part played by "serendipity" in scientific discovery.

Horace Walpole, the 4th Earl of Oxford and English writer, art historian, man of letters and antiquarian, coined the word ‘serendipity’ in 1754. In a letter to his friend Sir Horace Mann, Walpole referred to a fairytale about "The Three Princes of Serendip" (what is now Sri Lanka) who were always making discoveries, which they were not in quest of, by sheer luck and sagacity.

The history of science is replete with stories of discoveries by serendipity.

Louis Pasteur is reported to have said that "in the fields of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind." His statement is considered to be an axiom of scientific research. A scientist with a "prepared mind" has not only in-depth knowledge but the ability to make astute observations about unexpected phenomena just by paying attention to details outside the research question being studied.

Before listing out some great discoveries in which serendipity played a part, I would like to invite the readers’ attention to the fact that no one has analysed this issue better than Nobel Laureate Sir Peter Medawar, who has suggested a beautiful analogy. He considers two persons, a man who buys a lottery ticket that fetches him a prize and another person who finds somewhere (let us say a park bench or near a tree) a lottery ticket that later turns out by sheer fluke to be the winning one. Though both are winners, the former has in his view “purchased his candidature” for a turn of events that by the laws of mathematical probability have given him the prize, whereas the latter by accidentally finding a winning lottery ticket which he had not bought, has been aided by a stroke of blind luck.

According to Medawar, a scientist belongs to the former category because by the very nature of his investigative pursuit which involves effort, time, observation and experiment, he has earned his candidature for discovery. However, Medawar concedes that luck does sometimes invite a scientist's attention to a seemingly insignificant detail which he might have otherwise overlooked. But what ultimately leads to the actual discovery is the scientist’s own genius, hard work, and eye for detail.

I would like to begin this essay by referring to the three most popular stories in the history of science that have acquired over the years a distinct aura and legendary reputation irrespective of whether they are true or apocryphal.

These are:

1. The important law of hydrostatics was discovered by Archimedes, the Greek mathematician, in 3rd century BC. He was trying to ascertain whether a crown was made of pure gold or a cheap alloy. When he lowered himself in the water in his tub, the water overflowed. The displacement led to his discovery of an important law in hydrostatics (legend has it that he ran out into the streets of Syracuse in Italy naked shouting “Eureka Eureka" or 'I found it').

2. The idea of gravitation that came to Newton. According to legend, the great English scientist was sitting under an apple tree. He noticed that an apple fell down suddenly straight on the ground. He concluded that a force (gravity) had been responsible for the fall of the apple. Later, Newton published a comprehensive theory of gravity in 1687. Though others had thought about it before him, Newton was the first to create a theory that applied to all objects, large and small, using mathematics that was ahead of its time.

3. The idea of the immense power of steam which came to James Watt when he observed water boiling in a kettle pushing up its lid with great force. This discovery led to the invention of the steam engine in 1765.

Some of the other discoveries where serendipity play a part were:

In 1845, the German chemist C.P. Schonbein had been experimenting with chemicals in his house in Basel, Switzerland. He was warned by his wife not to enter the kitchen (as most wives do!) with the corrosive and foul-smelling acids that he had been experimenting with. But one day, taking advantage of her absence, he did enter the kitchen. He accidentally spilled some of the mixture (of nitric acid and sulfuric acid) on the kitchen table. In panic he wiped it off with his wife's cotton apron which was readily available. He then put the apron to dry over the stove as he was anxious not to leave behind any evidence of his guilt. He later found that not only had the apron dried, but that it had also suddenly disappeared. He concluded that a new explosive nitrocellulose had been produced by the interaction of the nitric acid mixture with the cellulose present on the apron.

The discovery of vulcanisation in 1939 by Charles Goodyear is another example. Rubber, in its natural state, becomes soft and sticky on hot days and brittle and still on cold days. Goodyear, who had been hoping to make a substance that would remain dry and flexible at all reasonable temperatures, was unable to make any headway till one eventful day when he accidentally spilled his chemical mixture (rubber mixed with sulfur) on a hot stove. The substance which he then peeled was found to be flexible! The extra heat of the surface of the stove had led to vulcanisation (Goodyear named his discovery vulcanisation after Vulcan, the Roman God of fire).

In 1823, Charles Macintosh sandwiched a layer of liquid rubber (made with naphtha) between two layers of fabric and created a new material that would be resistant to water while also remaining flexible and wearable. Out of the new fabric which was resistant to wet and rainy conditions, waterproof raincoats could be made.

John Pemberton, the inventor of Coca-cola, was a pharmacist by profession and just wanted to cure headaches. He was not a shrewd businessman or a seller of expensive candy or a dreamer looking to strike it rich in the beverage business. In 1886, Pemberton mixed two ingredients, coca leaves and cola nuts in his concoction for a hopeful headache cure. His lab assistant accidentally mixed the two with carbonated water producing the world's first Coke. Over the years, Coke would tinker with the now-secret recipe. But sadly, Pemberton died two years later of cancer and never saw his simple mixture give birth to the world's biggest drink empire.

Chemists normally take precautions to wash their hands at frequent intervals when they handle harmful chemicals. But in 1879, Constantine Fahlberg, a student of the American chemist Ira Remsen who had been experimenting with a chemical compound, was a bit careless and accidentally rubbed his lips with his unwashed hands, which contained some grains of a new compound. They had a sweet taste. This led to the discovery of Saccharin.

The Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman of Basel had a similar experience. Hoffman had wanted to pursue a career in humanities. Suddenly he switched over to pursue a career in chemistry and joined Sandoz laboratories in Basel. He began studying the chemical structure of the nucleus of the Mediterranean medicinal plant Squill and the fungus ergot as part of a program to purify substances for use as pharmaceuticals. On November 6, 1938, Hoffman too, like Fahlberg, applied some crystals on his fingers to his lips accidentally and later experienced strange, nightmarish sensations. His investigation led to the discovery of LSD.

The Danish physicist Ørsted noticed that a compass needle was deflected from magnetic north by a nearby electric current, confirming a direct relationship between electricity and magnetism. He published his discovery in 1820 (the popular version of the story that Ørsted made this discovery incidentally during a lecture demonstration has no basis ). He had, in fact, been looking for a connection between electricity and magnetism since 1818.

At the end of the nineteenth century many scientists had been experimenting with cathode rays. Roentgen had kept a sheet of paper coated with Barium Platinocyanide in the room. Roentgen noticed a glow on the paper when the apparatus had been switched on. Röentgen thus happened to discover X- Rays. He was one of the first winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics, in 1901, in recognition of his work.

In July 1921, two doctors -- Banting and McLeod -- were attempting to discover the role of the pancreas in digestion. After removing one from a test dog, they noticed that flies were gathering around the dog's urine. After testing the urine, they noted that it had a high sugar content. They realised that they had inadvertently given the dog diabetes. A little later, further experiments during the 1920s built on their work and were able to isolate the pancreatic secretion known as insulin.

The quintessentially serendipitous discovery was the isolation of Penicillin by Sir Alexander Fleming in 1929. Most people are only aware of the popular version of its discovery -- a petri dish containing fungus mould had been accidentally left behind in his laboratory by a brilliant scientist. The very day he noticed that a colony of bacteria adjacent to the petri dish had been wiped out. He had concluded that the bacteria had been destroyed by the fungus mould (peni­cillin).

What however is not known is that the scientist (Alexander Fleming) had in fact for several years been feverishly searching for some powerful agent or drug that could destroy bacteria without harming human tissue.

All the essential ingredients necessary to pave the way for a major breakthrough had already been there - a brilliant scientist, who was searching for an agent that could destroy bacteria, a well-equipped laboratory and a proper academic atmosphere. However, what most people would not know and therefore cannot appreciate is the fact (as rightly observed by Medawar) that penicillin, unlike other antibiotics, destroys bacteria by interfering with a process peculiar to bacteria -- the synthesis of the structural element of the bacterial cell-wall.

The non-formation of the cell wall increases the internal pressure to such an extent that the bacterium, which is multiplying, bursts like a balloon which cannot expand further. The cells in the human body contain only membranes and not walls -- hence they are protected from damage. Other antibiotics, unlike Penicillin, are harmful to human tissue as they act by interfering with the metabolic processes that bacteria have in common with other organisms.

In other words, they would not have satisfied Fleming’s twin criteria. Thus Fleming was lucky on two counts.

Another example of serendipity is the discovery of Teflon by Roy Plunkett in 1938. He capitalized on a chemical accident and invented Teflon, one of the best known and most widely used polymers of all time. As a chemist and a research assistant in DuPont, Plunkett's first assignment was synthesising new forms of the DuPont refrigerant Freon. His work moved along uneventfully until one day (on April 6, 1938) a mistake led to a discovery, which then turned into a great invention.

Plunkett and his assistant who were testing the chemical reactions of the refrigerant gas tetrafluoroethylene (TFE) noticed that one pressurised cylinder of the gas, which they had filled earlier, failed to discharge when its valve was opened. While they were setting aside the cylinder, they noticed that it was too heavy to be empty. Though there was risk of an explosion, they cut it open and discovered that the gas inside the cylinder had inexplicably solidified into a white powder. Rather puzzled, Plunlett began to test the properties of this substance. He found that it was much more lubricating than other slippery solids, like, for example, graphite.

What was more it proved unaffected by virtually all other chemicals and had an extremely high melting point. Plunkett then discovered that the molecules of the gas had bonded (polymerized) becoming polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) resin. Its unique properties were caused by an impenetrable shield of fluorine atoms which locked onto and protected the compound's essential string of carbon atoms. Plunkett realised that he had invented, in a way, to reproduce the TFE-to-PTFE polymerization in the lab.

The next year, the plastics division of DuPont refined Plunkett's production process for the Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE ) resin. By 1941, PTFE had both a patented process and a trade name: Teflon. In 1946, the first products using this non-stick, high-heat material -- machine parts for military and industrial applications -- were sold.

In the early 1960s, Teflon found its most famous use, as a miraculous non-stick surface for cookware. Teflon is now used as a coating for myriad metals, fabrics and wires, but also as a plastic in its own right. Indeed, Teflon has expanded into a whole family of polymers, found in industries as varied as aerospace and pharmaceuticals, and sold world-wide.

The Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral, while on a hiking trip in the Alps with his dog in 1941, noticed burdock seeds clinging to his pants and also to his dog's fur. It occurred to him that the hooks would cling to anything loop-shaped. It occurred to him that a lineal fabric strip with tiny hooks could 'mate' with another fabric strip with smaller loops, attaching temporarily, until mechanically pulled apart. Velcro as he named it (a combination of the words "velvet" and "crochet,") was initially made of cotton, which was not strong enough; the fastener was eventually constructed with nylon and polyester. Velcro is now used widely in the space suits of astronauts, in trousers, school bags and sports equipment, and in shoes replacing laces.

Sometimes all you really need to make the next leap in science is a snack. Percy Spencer was an American engineer who, while working for Raytheon, walked in front of a magnetron, a vacuum tube used to generate microwaves, and noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket melted. In 1945 after a few more experiments (one involving an exploding egg), Spencer successfully invented the first microwave oven. The first models were a lot like the early computers: bulky and unrealistic. In 1967, compact microwaves would begin filling American homes.

A modern example of serendipity in drug discovery is Viagra, Pfizer’s erectile dysfunction drug. The active agent in Viagra, sildenafil, was originally developed to treat cardiovascular problems by dilating blood vessels in the heart. Sildenafil worked moderately well in animal tests and was put into human clinical trials in the early 1990s. The drug performed poorly in this trial, but an observant nurse noted something odd when checking on the men enrolled in the study – many of the men lay on their stomachs. The men were embarrassed because they had erections.

Dilation of blood vessels is a major part of the process that causes erection, and blood vessels were dilating in penises and not in hearts. A formulation of sildenafil (called Viagra) was approved by the USDA as an erectile dysfunction drug in 1998.

Despite all that has been said above, there is no justification to hastily conclude that luck plays a major role in scientific discovery or to give a measure of credit which is far out of proportion to its real importance. All that luck can do is to only help scientists reach their goal in their search for truth quicker by focusing their attention on some seemingly insignificant details which they might have otherwise overlooked due to reasons beyond their control. No amount of luck or chance can really take the place of talent and hard work. The course of scientific progress is ultimately determined only by the tireless efforts of a few gifted and outstanding individuals endowed with genius, curiosity, perseverance, and a little bit of luck.

V.S.Ravi is a distinguished and highly decorated IPS officer having served both the Government of AP and the Government of India, for 35 years. He retired in 1998. He is a scion of the Alladi family, being a grandson of the Late Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, one of the Chief architects of the Constitution . Sri Ravi is one of the foremost authorities on Shakespeare in the country. He has contributed articles on Shakespeare to the Hindu and News Time Now. He passed Physics (Hons) with distinction and he has kept himself in touch with the latest developments in science and technology.
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