Serendipity: science by chance

Serendipity is the art of looking at something that surprises us and imagine from it a pertinent interpretation. It has been used to describe the important scientific breakthroughs made by chance. Here are three major scientific inventions that have been discovered by mistake:

Let’s start early! 

265 before JC. Archimedes, casually relaxing in the public baths, sees the water rise when immersing is body more and more in the water. The legend tells that the famous Eureka! come from here, when he had the idea of the Archimede’s Principle: the upward buoyant force that is exerted on a body immersed in a fluid, whether fully or partially submerged, is equal to the weight of the fluid that the body displaces. The applications are numerous, such as studies on nuclear submarines and how to fill the ballasts accordingly, or the most important decisions of all time: can I fit another ice cube in my Martini without it overflowing? We could never thank science enough to answer those tough questions. 

A modified version of Archimedes’ Principle. - ArXiv


What about this headache? 

Edward Stone, Botanist in 1763. By analysing plants used by Peruvians people, he sees that they create medicine with the bark of a specific tree of Peruvians Andes. This bark being extremely close to the willow bark, he automatically assumes that the willow’s bark has the same properties, following the signature theory, much believed on this time: the appearance of a plant must reveal everything about its functions. Despite being partially false, this assumption allowed him to discover acetylsalicylic acid: the main component of the majority of anti-inflammatory drugs we know. Next time you hurt yourself, have a little thought for Edward Stone. 

Some more about Willow’s bark extract. - Wiley

Beware of anemones. 

Charles Richet is a French physiologist whose studies were on anemones tentacles, and the effect of their venom on animals. By giving small amounts of this venom to subjects, he expected the latter to be resistant, as the immune system was supposed to build defences against threats it already knew. Charles could not be more surprised when, after giving a very small second dose to the experiment subject, it died quickly. Astonished, he could not believe the death was related to the poison. At this point, he just discovered allergy: a too strong response of the immune system.

More about Charles Richet - Medline


Science can make you laugh… And think.

In 1991, Marc Abrahams, founder of Annals of Improbable Research created the Ig Nobels. The ceremony is dedicated to scientific discoveries that have a humourous twist, such as the one that states that ostriches are aroused in the presence of humans. Or the one that made a frog levitate. This particular one, executed par Andre Geim is quite interesting. Andre is actually one of the few people that have an Ig Nobel, and… a Nobel. He earned his Nobel Prize by discovering a revolutionary yet simple way to produce graphene, one of the most conductor material on earth… with some tape. Those Ig Nobels are here to make you laugh but on a second thought, can surely make you think. Vulgarization is one of the most powerful tools to teach a subject, and laugher makes it easier, and much more friendly.