*this as a little something I wrote for my college newsletter*

When asked to give a write-up on the ‘accidental discoveries in science’, the word that popped in my head was ‘serendipity’ whose literal meaning is ‘the occurrence of events by chance in a beneficial way’. Also, I wondered, aren’t most discoveries sheer acts of serendipity?

For instance, the discovery of gravity by Newton. The fact that an apple from a tree fell straight down, perpendicular to the ground rather than falling upward, or off to a side intrigued the scientist. He realized that it is a property of all matter including the moon which moves as if it is passing the earth but also, being attracted towards it. Newton later visited the tree that provoked the idea, while publishing his theory. As a matter of fact, the scientist stayed home the day he observed the apple falling, because his university was shut down due to an outbreak of plague.

We can’t discuss accidental discoveries without mentioning one of the most important discoveries in the field of medicine- vaccine. The vaccine for smallpox was developed when medical student, Edward Jenner noticed that milkmaids that contracted a disease called cowpox, which caused blistering on cow’s udders, did not catch smallpox. Cowpox only led to a few ill symptoms in humans while smallpox caused severe skin eruptions and dangerous fever. Jenner extracted the fluid from a small pox blister and scrubbed it on an eight year old boy which caused a single blister to rise. On inoculating the boy with smallpox matter, no disease developed. Thus, the first vaccine was discovered.

Another amusing story is that of the discovery of penicillin, one of the world’s first antibiotics. When Dr. Alexander Fleming returned from a two-week vacation to his lab, he noticed that one of his Petri dishes was now the home of a mysterious mold. After observing under the microscope, he was amazed to find that the existing bacteria did not grow where the mold grew. The mold called Penicillium notatum had the potential of eluding microorganisms. Nearly 13 years later, a group of scientists brought back penicillin into spotlight again, producing better mold and today, penicillin is harnessed to combat a number of infectious diseases and to save lives!

Charles Goodyear kept adding dry ingredients into gum to make it more durable. There are many stories as to what led to the discovery of vulcanized rubber- one of the most celebrated accidents, but, the most persistent one is that of Goodyear using sulphur as dry ingredient. As snickers rose from the mixture, some of it landed on a hot stove. While scraping it off, it was found that the matter had charred, and turned dry, and springy. Another story is that of Goodyear carelessly spilling gum, sulphur, and lead on to a hot stove. The result was the same- charred rubber. The world now had waterproof rubber, also resistant to hot and cold. Had it not been the mixture coming  in contact with heat, would we have durable rubber?

Accidents that came across intrigued and inquisitive human minds led to revolutionary discoveries that changed the world. It is amusing that such important discoveries only took place because of mundane mishaps in everyday things being put into perspective. Today, instruction manuals to everything we use, and a long list of ‘precautions to be taken’ accompany everything we touch. Move around, be curious, make mistakes, learn. There are so many things untouched, not thought about, waiting to be pricked, and meddled with, and to make it big. You could be the next to discover, just question the falling of an apple or something?


~Nida Khan