Science and tech often rely on calculated risks and precision planning. (Especially for keeping costs down!) Yet, as in all areas of life, things inevitably do not always go to plan. Exciting accidental discoveries are constantly being made, forcing us to adjust our world view.
Just this month, for example, marine biologists working in the Weddell Sea off Antarctica discovered marine organisms living on a boulder on the seafloor, beneath 900 meters of the Antarctic ice shelf. Scientists had assumed that total darkness, a lack of food, and -2C temperatures made this type of environment too hostile for any organism, but this radical new finding suggests otherwise.
“It’s slightly bonkers,” Dr. Huw Griffiths, a marine biogeographer at the British Antarctic Survey, told the press. “Never in a million years would we have thought about looking for this kind of life, because we didn’t think it would be there.” The discovery has now led scientists to “rethink the limits of life on Earth”, according to The Guardian.
The thing about an accidental discovery is, the scientist or technician still has to recognize that they’ve made one – and see how their mistake might benefit humanity. This leads us to wonder how many accidental discoveries have gone undiscovered. It also points to the importance of keeping an open mind: successes and breakthroughs are happening all of the time, it’s up to us to spot them.
By way of inspiration, in this week’s Radical Idea we’re celebrating the happy accidents we have to thank for lifesaving medicine we sometimes take for granted, for scientific knowledge that we rely on to make sense of the world, and for technology that can protect the future of our planet.
Below, ten major breakthroughs that were – Eureka! – happy accidents.
Back in the late-1880s, two doctors were researching the pancreas’ role in digestion when they removed a pancreas from a dog and noticed that afterward, flies were suddenly gathering around the dog’s urine. They tested it, only to find higher sugar content than normal – which is how they worked out they had accidentally given the dog diabetes.
Later on, in the 1920s, further experiments were able to isolate the pancreatic secretion now known as insulin. More recently, MachineGenes – a medical research group based in Australia and a semi-finalist in the $5M IBM Watson AI XPRIZE – have been working on using machine learning to create a smart pancreas... a computerized system that improves the precision of insulin treatment for people with diabetes.
The physicist Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen was busy experimenting on a cathode ray tube in his laboratory in Wurzburg, Germany, in 1885, when he suddenly noticed a mysterious glow emanating from a chemically coated screen nearby. He tried to block the glow with his hand and noticed that the glow projected his bones onto the screen. He replaced the screen with a photographic plate and - presto - the first x-ray ever was born.
One of the most famous ever accidental breakthroughs in the field of physics happened in 1896 when the French physicist Henri Becquerel opened a drawer and discovered spontaneous radioactivity. Well, not entirely spontaneous. Becquerel was intrigued by the discovery of x-rays and wanted to investigate their relationship with phosphorescence, so was attempting to expose photographic plates with sunlight using uranium salts.
The experiment didn’t work because it was overcast outside, so he left the uranium in a drawer on top of the photographic plate with wooden crosses in between. When he later developed the plates, he realized that the crosses showed up – meaning that the uranium was exposing them.
Becquerel’s student, Marie Curie, named this “radioactivity”, and in 1903, Becquerel was awarded half of the Nobel Prize for Physics while the other half went to Pierre and Marie Curie for their study of the Becquerel radiation.
In 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin by accident. He came back from vacation to find mold growing in a petri dish of Staphylococcus bacteria cultures. Noticing that bacterial colonies would not grow near the mold, he wondered what was happening. After isolating the mold and conducting some tests, Fleming realized that it inhibited bacterial growth. By 1942, penicillin – as it was now known – was mass-produced as medicine.
The Deinonychus dinosaur
The Deinonychus – which means “terrible claw” – was discovered by complete accident in the 1930s by American paleontologist Barnum Brown. While searching for a completely different dinosaur, Tenontosaurus, Brown stumbled across the remains of this carnivorous dinosaur in Wyoming. He called it the Daptosaurus, meaning “active lizard”, but it was later renamed Deinonychus in the 1960s, when John Ostrom, another American paleontologist, uncovered more fossilized bones of the creature.
Random trivia: The Deinonychus inspired Jurassic Park's version of the Velociraptor. Velociraptors are a real dinosaur, but their size and stature in the films are actually more akin to the Deinonychus.
Back in the late-1930s, Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann was attempting to synthesize a chemical compound that could stimulate the respiratory system. Combining Lysergic acid with diethylamine, he created LSD-25, but since it did nothing but excite the animals they tested it on, not much came of the experiment.
In 1943, he returned to research on the chemical and accidentally absorbed the LSD through his fingers, and began to feel dizzy and restless, before going on to have some very “interesting” dreams that evening. When he tasted it a few days later, things got really weird, and a colleague had to escort him home. They were both on bicycles, and as Hoffman later wrote, “Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me…”
Several products that you might find in your house were created by accident, from Cornflakes to Playdoh, but superglue is among the most useful. In 1942, its inventor Dr. Harry Coover was attempting to make clear plastic gun sights for weapons used by allied forces in WW2 when he accidentally created the substance. He abandoned it for nine years before testing again and realizing its commercial property as a uniquely powerful bonding agent, but superglue wouldn’t come on the market until 1958. It was originally put on the market as “Eastman910” after Coover’s employer, Eastman Kodak.
In 1956, Wilson Greatbatch invented the pacemaker, a device that has saved countless lives, by mistake. He was trying to build a device to record the rhythm of the heart when he reached into a box for a resistor to complete the circuitry in his device and pulled out the wrong size. After installing it, he realized that the circuit was emitting pulses that reminded him of the timing of a heartbeat. A bright idea came to him – that it might be possible to create a device small enough to insert into a body and actually stimulate the heartbeat. On May 7, 1958, a scaled-down version of his device was successfully inserted into a dog – the first pacemaker.
The first evidence of the Big Bang
When astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson noticed some strange "noise-like” radio static coming from their antenna while observing the space between galaxies, they were perplexed. After ruling out interference from urban areas, or nuclear testing, or pigeons, Wilson and Penzias came across American astronomer Robert Dicke's theory that radiation left over from a universe-forming big bang could now act as background cosmic radiation. When Dicke heard the news of Wilson and Penzias' discovery, he famously told his research partners, “we've been scooped” and he was right: Penzias and Wilson would go on to receive the Nobel Prize in 1973.
Plastic eating enzymes
In 2016, scientists in Japan discovered a bacteria that ate plastic. The organisms they found produced two enzymes that help them break down PET within weeks. Scientists called these enzymes PETase and MHETase, and by 2018, they had tweaked the PETase enzyme to speed up its abilities – by accident.
“The international team then tweaked the enzyme to see how it had evolved, but tests showed they had inadvertently made the molecule even better at breaking down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic used for soft drink bottles,” The Guardian reported. In 2020, they turned it into a super enzyme that destroys plastic six times faster. With the world in a plastic pollution crisis, this accidental discovery couldn’t be more urgent for the future of the planet.
Ok, so we can’t be sure what’s around the corner – such is the nature of accidents. But we can try to foster the environments that happy accidents happen in. That’s where incentive Prizes come in – spurring the next radical breakthroughs in science, tech and climate. If you want to find out more about how Prizes foster genius, read our blog on Why The World Needs Incentive Prizes, with XPRIZE’s Chief Advancement Officer, Shlomy Kattan.