Words by Tarryn Basden
Tarryn has never let a bad idea stop her.
Science has done a lot for our society. From medicines to technology and more, our society would be a vastly different place without science. So, we like to think scientists know what they’re doing, right?
History has shown that actually, a lot of scientific advancements have happened by accident. Here are just a few of the happy accidents that have led to some pretty important discoveries.
One of the most famous scientific accidents happened in 1928 when Professor Alexander Fleming took a holiday.
Upon returning, Flemming began sorting through some petri-dishes that had unfortunately been left out (we’ve all been there, coming home to some accidental ‘biology’ happening in an only mostly empty bowl). These particular petri-dishes just happened to contain colonies of Staphylococcus – a not-so-friendly bacteria that causes boils, sore throats, and abscesses. While sorting, he noticed something odd. In all of the dishes, the Staphylococcus colonies were growing happily, except for one dish, which had a blob of mould growing. Being a curious scientist, Fleming took a closer look and found that the area around this blob of mould was completely clear of bacteria.
Further studies over the following years found that this rare strain of mould, from the genus Penicillium, could inhibit bacterial growth, eventually leading to the creation of the antibiotic treatment Penicillin.
So, who knows. The next big scientific discovery could be growing in those three-week-old noodles you still haven’t thrown out!… But probably not. Please clean your fridge.
Arguably, one of the most important accidental discoveries happened in Ruth Graves Wakefields’ kitchen in 1930.
Wakefield was busy baking cookies when she realised she had run out of baker’s chocolate. Through sheer desperation (you know the feeling), she tried using Nestle semi-sweet chocolate in her cookies instead. She assumed the chocolate would spread out as it melted, making chocolate cookies. Instead, the chocolate held its shape, and she accidentally invented chocolate-chip cookies!
I think we should all be thankful for the forgetfulness and ingenuity of Ruth Graves Wakefield.
Another unexpected discovery occurred during clinical trials of a new treatment for angina – a type of chest pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart. During the trials, one nurse noticed something weird when the men would come in for check-ups. She noted that many of the men would be laying on their stomachs. Kind of weird when you’re here for me to check your heart and have a chat about the medication… This was, of course, because these men were getting erections as a side effect of the medication. So many men experienced this side effect so regularly in fact, that this is exactly what Viagra is now marketed for.
Science is often not the straightforward process of idea-experiment-result we like to think it is. It is a messy profession filled with failure and success. But the key point to take away is that a failure is not always a failure (unless you blow up the lab…). Sometimes messing up is even better than getting it right because you might just end up with chocolate-chip cookies or some other kind of happy ending.