Singular Moments in Science

Discussion in 'Techforge' started by Tuckerfan, Oct 24, 2013.

  1. Tuckerfan

    Tuckerfan BMF Staff Member Moderator

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    As a kid, we all heard the story about Sir Isaac Newton being inspired to come up with his theory of gravity after being brained by an apple. We're led to believe that had the apple not whacked him on the head, it might have been a lot longer before we ever discovered a theory of gravity. That story, as with so many things we learn as kids, turns out to most likely to have been bullshit. (Newton probably made it up, to claim primacy over others who'd come to similar conclusions.) With nearly every other discovery, there are often multiple individuals working along the same lines, so even if, for example, Newton had died before he'd worked out his theory of gravity, someone else would have published the same theory in the same time frame.

    I was listening to a podcast today on famous tumors, which talks about Henrietta Lacks, and her tumor, which not only aided in the development of a polio vaccine, but has led to something like 11,000 patents, and it got me to thinking. Here we have something which lead to tremendous scientific breakthroughs, and unlike the theory of gravity, evolution, or the lightbulb (to name but a few examples), there's no way that someone else could have come up with the same results. It took Mrs. Lacks' DNA, her exposure to different illnesses, and the random mutation that caused her fatal tumor, to give us the first human cells that could be kept alive indefinitely in the lab. With the knowledge gained from her cells, we were able to develop other human cell cultures that could be kept alive for long periods of time, but it took another 20 years to come up with the techniques. Who knows how long it might have taken us had she not developed cancer?

    I can't think of any other moment so unique in science, where a breakthrough came about from happenstance. Presumably, there must be others, but I don't know if any of them would have had the same kind of payoff (in terms of discoveries that hinged off the first one). Anybody else have any nominations for such singular moments?
  2. Paladin

    Paladin Overjoyed Man of Liberty

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    Popular Mechanics has a list of 10 great ones...

    10. Penicillin: Alexander Fleming discovers a fungus that kills bacteria in a lab dish he neglected to wash.
    9. Microwave Oven: engineer Percy Spencer was working around a magnetron and discovered its emanations melted the chocolate bar in his pocket.
    8. Velcro: engineer Georges de Mestral noted the "hook and loop" structure of burrs that clung to his dog's fur.
    7. The Big Bang: Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias, two Princeton students, investigated unexpected noise received on an antenna, and discovered the universe's microwave background.
    6. Teflon: Dupont scientist Roy Plunkett found a slippery white residue on the inside of a tank he was using to test a new refrigerant.
    5. Vulcanized rubber: Charles Goodyear accidentally dropped a piece of rubber on a hot stove and found that a leathery, weatherproof surface was created where it charred.
    4. Coca Cola: pharmacist John Permberton used coca leaves and cola nuts for a headache cure, and his assistant accidentally mixed them with carbonated water.
    3. Radioactivity: scientist Henri Becquerel left uranium salts on a photographic plate and discovered the image was fogged.
    2. Viagra: drug maker Pfizer's prospective angina medication failed to deliver on its intended purpose, but a peculiar side effect arose in the male test subjects.
    1. Smart dust (hadn't heard of this one): grad student Jamie Link shattered a computer chip and discovered that its pieces could still operate as sensors.

    http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/10-awesome-accidental-discoveries#slide-1
  3. Tuckerfan

    Tuckerfan BMF Staff Member Moderator

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    None of those really match what I'm talking about, however. For example, the fungus that produces penicillin is actually rather common, sooner or later, somebody would have figured out that a microwave heats food (people have been working on such things since Tesla), Velcro, the weeds are fairly common, and its possible somebody else would have been as curious as de Mestral was.

    I'm talking about things that are more along the lines of just happening to point the Hubble telescope in the direction of a previously unknown supernova event, than accidental discoveries of the kind you've posted.
  4. Tuckerfan

    Tuckerfan BMF Staff Member Moderator

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    Here's one, and it also happens to be the pic of a lifetime.

    [​IMG]

    Really.
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