Stumbling onto success in science

As Issue 38 of I, Science comes out Tuesday December 5th, get a cheeky flavour of Success in this special promotional piece.

To quote the esteemed Sir Isaac Newton, the greatest scientific breakthroughs and discoveries often stem from “standing on the shoulders of giants”. Pivotal successes in science can often be traced back through a lineage of highly talented scientific minds, who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of invention and innovation, and laid the foundations for their successors. Albert Einstein will forever be lauded by the scientific community, both current and future, for his pioneering works on relativity theory and mass-energy equivalence. However, relativity theory and his alternative perception of gravity could not have come to fruition without Newton’s classical framework for the universe, established in his Principia Mathematica.

In this regard, many scientific breakthroughs require years, sometimes centuries, of research and diligence. But not always. Serendipity has often played an instrumental role in a plethora of discoveries that have shaped the development of society and civilisation. Unexpected events and actions have led to breakthroughs that have brought numerous individuals unheralded fame. Here we’ll explore scenarios from the history of science, where success has arisen under the most unintended and unforeseen circumstances.

Accidental success

As Plato once said, “science is nothing but perception”, and several of the following accidental successes have embodied that sentiment. Perhaps the most significant example of this is the discovery of penicillin, which heralded the dawn of the age of antibiotics and the fight against bacterial infections. Prior to its advent, there was no effective treatment for prevalent illnesses such as tuberculosis and pneumonia. It was not until the autumn of 1928, when Scottish biologist, Professor Alexander Fleming, returned to his lab at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, that the story took an unexpected turn for the better.

(Left): The pioneer of modern medicine, Sir Alexander Fleming, in his laboratory at St. Mary’s Hospital, London in 1951. (Right) Paper submitted to the British Journal of Experimental Pathology by Fleming in 1929, reporting his discovery of Penicillum notatum. Source: Royal Society of Chemistry.

Fleming began sorting through petri dishes containing colonies of Staphylococcus, a bacterium known to cause sore throats and abscesses in the skin. He wasn’t looking for anything in particular; merely a standard task on a routine day at the office. However, his eyes caught sight of something peculiar in one dish. A region of mould, later classified as a rare strain of Penicillum notatum, was growing, and there were no colonies of bacteria in the area immediately surrounding the mould. Through careful inspection, Fleming realised that this mould was secreting a biological compound that inhibited microbial growth. Amazed by this he investigated further, later realising this mould could kill a wide range of harmful strains of bacteria, including Streptococcus, meningococcus (Neisseria meningitidis), and diphtheria (Corynebacterium diphtheriae).

Interestingly, when Fleming first published his research in the Journal of British Experimental Pathology in June 1929, he only made a passing reference to the potential therapeutic properties of penicillin. In fact, he believed the only practical benefit was to bacteriologists, who could conduct further research into isolating penicillin-resistant bacteria from mixed cultures. Thus, his research did not initially garner much attention from the scientific community. Little did Fleming know that in retrospect, his accidental discovery would be the first spark in the inception of modern medicine.

(Left): Wilhelm Röntgen. inventor of the X-ray and founding father of diagnostic radiology. (Right) The first ever X-ray image of the hand of Anna Bertha Ludwig, Röntgen’s wife, with her wedding ring distinctly visible. Source: APS Physics.

Fleming was not the first scientist to have stumbled onto ground-breaking success accidentally, nor is it likely he will be the last. In 1895, Wilhelm Röntgen, then a Professor of Physics in Germany, was exploring the path of electric discharges from a cathode ray tube. Although the room was pitch dark and the tube covered in black paper, he noticed a small screen covered in fluorescent material was illuminated by the rays. He soon realised that a projected image of his wife’s hand onto a photographic plate showed a stark contrast between translucent flesh and opaque bones. Röntgen had inadvertently stumbled onto X-ray imaging, a hallmark discovery enabling internal structures of the body to be visualised without surgery. His accidental discovery revolutionised the medical profession and earned him unparalleled fame. Today, he is hailed as the father of diagnostic radiology, the field specialising in medical imaging.

Accidental inventions

In the same way that Fleming and Röntgen discovered crucial scientific phenomena through a mixture of perception and good fortune, a handful of scientists and engineers have been able to use their discovery to invent revolutionary devices or contraptions that have changed our lifestyles.

A prime example of this is Teflon. A common misconception is that this infamous non-stick coating was a consequence of NASA space missions. In fact, Teflon was first invented by Roy Plunkett, who was trying to develop a novel refrigerant with CFC gases. For safety reasons, Plunkett stored tetrafluoroethylene (TFE) gas cylinders in dry ice, but when he tried to use the gas, he instead discovered a waxy layer (PTFE). In attempting to remove this, he realised the substance was extremely stable, mechanically and thermally, as well as heat-, water- and acid-resistant. He investigated further and, after teaming up with French engineer Marc Gregoire, the Teflon brand and non-stick pans emerged.
This accidental discovery has made cooking so much easier now, wouldn’t you agree?

Non-stick Teflon frying pans have become commonplace in our kitchens, thanks to engineers Roy Plunkett and Marc Gregoire. Source: Foodal.

Teflon has since become a household name, much like Coca-Cola. But did you know that the world-renowned drink, one of the most recognisable global brands, actually originated from a mistake? The inventor of Coca-Cola was not an entrepreneur who struck gold in the beverage business, nor was he a confectioner. John Pemberton, an average Joe in Georgia, USA, was a pharmacist whose curious mind simply sought a cure for headaches and migraines. His belief was that coca leaves and cola nuts were the key active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) that could achieve this. While testing his theory, he and his lab assistant accidentally mixed the two ingredients with carbonated water, resulting in the world’s first bottle of Coke. Of course, Pemberton initially had no idea what he had created and the company have since tinkered with their preciously safe-guarded recipe. Nevertheless, one unplanned move during an experiment led to the formation of the world’s largest soft drink empire.

Serendipity and science

Serendipity has often been regarded as a key recurring character in the theatrical production that is science. Stories of great breakthroughs abound and are riddled with chance and coincidence. But that begs the question: are these factors the only way to achieve true success in science?

The largest drinks empire on the planet and one of the most recognisable brands in the world, but it all started with trying to cure a headache – who knew? Source: Diet Doctor.

Let’s consider this. It takes more than being in the right place at the right time to make a scientific discovery, even a serendipitous one. As the great Richard Feynman once said, “the real glory of science is that we can find a way of thinking such that the law is evident”. Thus, success in science stems from being able to exhibit a palette of key attributes: fundamental knowledge, an inquisitive mind, and creative thinking. It takes a great scientific mind to comprehend what has been observed and why it has occurred. Despite common folklore, Newton did not instantaneously discover gravity after being hit on the head by the proverbial apple – the story is quite different. His musings in his mother’s garden allowed him to observe falling apples. So yes, maybe he was in the right place, at the right time. But surely many other individuals would have observed falling objects as well – why didn’t they discover gravity by accident? The answer is simple. It was Newton’s curiosity, fuelled by his knowledge of physics, that inspired him to assemble the pieces of the puzzle together, not dumb luck. In that sense, serendipity is woven through the history of science and has been undeniably useful, but true success in science requires so much more – it asks us to look deeper and push the boundaries of our intellect.

Ravi Shankar is studying for a PhD in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London

Banner Image: I, Science Issue 38 Cover, Leong Jin Ean, Claudia Cannon, Taryn Kalish

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *