Sunday, 5 October 2014

Science Saturday - Three Accidental Science Discoveries That Changed The World

As a matter of fact ...

I believe science changes the world. It's easy to see the technology, medicine and knowledge gained over the centuries by rigorous research done by ambitious scientists. An idea is proposed, thoroughly experiemted with and the result is new information that can be applied to real world problems. It's simple enough and sounds very deliberate, right?

However, more often than not, science is not very deliberate. Accidents happen that lead to new discoveries: ones that people never foresaw or were even looking for. Some of these happy accidents in science have gone on to change the world. Here are three of my favourites ...

1) Penicillin 

Alexandar Flemming looking stern in his lab
Probably the most famous and for good reason. To date, an estimated 82 million lives have been saved since the discovery and application of penicillin. It was first discovered by Alexandar Flemming on September 3rd, 1928. Flemming had returned to his laboratory from a holiday to find he had accidentally left a lid open on a petri dish containing a strain of cold-causing bacteria he was studying.

To Flemming's surprise, a mold had grown inside the dish that had no bacteria growing around it. The mold was inhibiting its growth. The mold was 'penicillium notatum' and Flemming realised its importance immediately. It was soon manufactured into its drug form and by the 1940's, with the help of the US, it was being shipped globally and saving countless lives. Well, not countless - 82 million since then to be precise!

2) Big Bang

The Big Bang left an echo in all of time and space
Yes thats right, even the origins of our universe were an accidental discover. In New Jersey, 1964, scientists Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were studying the transmition of radiowaves on 'echo balloon' satelites. The signals were extremely faint and so they had to eliminate all other interference.

Despite their efforts, they were still picking up a low, steady and mysterious nice that was 100 times stronger than they had expected. After meticulously checking their equipment and even removing such variables as a pair of pigeons and their nests that were roosting in the antenna dish, they tried again. The noise persisted. They concluded it couldnt have come from Earth, the Sun or even the galaxy. It was everywhere they pointed the radar, day and night, never stopping.

It wasn't until they heard of nearby researches Robert H. DickeJim Peebles, and David Wilkinson's theory of background radioation being leftover from the big bang that the pair realised the gravity of their discovery. They met with the other team and published their discoveries together. What they had been hearing was the echo of the big bang, left in every corner of the universe. 

3) Microwave 

The first microwave 'ovens' really lived up to their name
From big to small radiation now. The humble microwave is a staple piece in every home across the world. It's hard to believe that it was only created in 1945 from an accident!

Perry Spencer was a self taught engineer working on an active radar set for the company 'Raytheon' in Maine. One day, he noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted as a result of the radiation he was working with. 

Spencer quickly replicated the radiation and contained it within a metal box. His team noticed that the temperate of food rose rapidly when placed inside. The first food cooked was popcorn and then an egg. As the cliche goes, the rest is history. Flemmings box of 'micro-waves' went on sale in the US in 1947 and hasn't looked back since! 

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Accidents happen, accidents are great. 
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