Science is forever looking to advance the way we live. From discovering new medicines to opening up the possibility of living on other planets, new discoveries are being made every day. While most of these are a coordinated effort toward a common goal, it so happens every now and then that a discovery or invention is made completely by accident. These discoveries were mostly the result of trying to investigate something else, and it just goes to show that even in failing, we can always learn something new. So here are the scientific discoveries that were made unintentionally, but changed the way we live.
Most people know about the world’s most famous antibiotic, discovered in 1928 by Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming. The story goes that Fleming left a sandwich or a bunch of dirty dishes in his lab for the weekend, along with an open petri dish of bacteria, and returned to find that a mould had entered the petri dish and wiped out the bacteria. The compound which forms the base for the antibiotic penicillin was then isolated following more research. Fleming was known for his sloppiness, in work and in life, and yet he made one of the world’s most significant discoveries.
One of the most useful fastening systems we use today, Velcro, arose from an unusual and highly irritating source. When George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, went for a hike one day, he noticed that seeds of burdock burr would attach to his clothes. Unlike many of us who would simply sigh and compulsively brush them off, he was inspired. The little hooks that the burrs used to attach to his clothes gave him the idea to create his world famous fastening system. Later, it was adopted by NASA and then became extremely popular.
This useful little product owes its invention to a man who was trying to invent a plastic lens for a gun sight during World War II. When working with acrylates, Harry Coover Jr. would become very frustrated because of the stickiness of the compounds. When he added acrylate to a lens then placed another lens over to see how it bent the light, he was met with the problem of being unable to pull the lenses apart after his experiment. Now furious with the acrylates at rendering his expensive lenses useless, Coover finally had his “Ah-ha!” moment. He realised that acrylates were no good as lenses or coating, but made a fantastic, near indestructible adhesive.
Roy Plunket, an American chemist was trying his best to discover a new refrigerant – one that could help to cool larger amounts of food or other substances than those available at the time. When looking at the compound TFE (tetrafluoroethylene), he noticed that it formed a white powder at low temperatures and pressures. Curious, he tested the product by heating it and pouring acid onto it. He was surprised when he noticed that the substance was unaffected by both. He realized that this substance was perfect for cookware, and hence Teflon was born!
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek was a fabric trader who lived in the 1600s and 1700s (he lived to 90 in a time before modern medicine!). He invented a device with a peephole to help him zoom in and examine fabrics closely. To his surprise, he was met with highly mobile creatures, which we today know as bacteria. His discovery sparked decades of research into microbiology and the invention of the light microscope.