Last week, drunk scientists discovered how to make superconductors run faster when they accidentally spilled wine on an experiment. Often science and serendipity often go hand in hand. Here are more accidental discoveries that changed the world.
Medicine is science applied to the human body - and medical experiments are so complex and varied that things frequently don't turn out as hoped. And, just to add a touch of comedy, accidents in this field are often crotch-oriented. The most famous below-the-belt invention of modern times was Viagra. The drug was meant to help patients with angina, a painful heart condition in which the circulatory system constricts and does not get enough oxygenated blood to the heart. Although the medication failed to treat the disease, it had a side effect of increasing blood flow elsewhere. The test patients mentioned this, and a new use made the pill famous.
In earlier times, scientists were trying like crazy to stop the blood flowing below the belt. Masturbation was considered the cause of all social ills, from psychotic violence to rounded shoulders. Some tried to cure the terrible scourge through prayer, others through diet - which is how an early version of Graham crackers were invented - but others knew that medical solutions were the only way. They noticed that people masturbated less under the influence of potassium bromide. The substance was hailed as a specific treatment until enthusiasm waned when doctors noticed that people did everything less under the influence of potassium bromide. The compound was soon re-branded as a sedative, and masturbation was re-branded as something that drives the vast majority of internet traffic.
This antibiotic is often considered one of the great accidental discoveries. Alexander Fleming got a Nobel Prize when he noticed that a mold had contaminated his flu cultures - but the area around the mold was clear of infection. Others, though, had gotten there before him, including young stable boys who used moldy bread to treat skin infections in horses, and who rubbed the mold that accumulated on saddles into their own skin to prevent saddle sores.
The Big Bang
Accidental discoveries sometimes aren't as hard to see as a tiny dish of mold, or as esoteric as stable boys rubbing things on other things. Sometimes they're as loud an annoying as a persistent hum that you just can't get out of your head. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were using an antenna to get signals from the Milky Way. Except they weren't because instead of small, discrete signals they heard a constant, annoying hum no matter what way they turned the antenna. After checking the equipment, ruling out military communications, and slaughtering pigeons nested inside the antenna, on the grounds that perhaps they were humming pigeons, the two researchers still heard the noise. It turned out they were listening to the residual radiation from the Big Bang. Apologizing to the pigeon corpses, they wrote up their findings and won a Nobel Prize.
Physicist William Roentgen was shooting an electric current through a special gass in a glass tube. The gas glowed. Big whoop, thought Roentgen, and covered the tube with heavy paper so he could get on with the important business of not being impressed by glowing things. The glow remained, only this time it was coming from a screen a treated with heavy elements a few feet away. A little experimentation and Roentgen found out that he'd made a ray that passed through light elements, but interacted with heavy ones; the X-ray.
And now back to an area that has been the cause of great discoveries and great concern: lack of hygiene. Safety glass was invented when a clumsy materials researcher knocked a beaker off a high shelf and noticed that it had broken to pieces, but not into sharp, dangerous shards. Upon inspection, it turned out that the beaker hadn't been washed properly, and the plastic it had once held had coated the inside and kept the broken pieces together.
Of course, not everyone likes to do dishes. Everyone, however, should at least like washing their hands. Not Constantin Fahlberg. After a hard day of working with coal tar, going to the bathroom in public bus stations, and petting every mangy stray dog he could find, he came home and, without washing his hands, grabbed one of his wife's dinner rolls and bit into it. It tasted sweet. He asked his wife if she had been doing anything different with the rolls. She hadn't. Hers tasted normal. Fahlberg discovered saccharine, his wife told him to never ever come home again, and everyone who liked sugarless sugar lived happily ever after.