Do you know what the invention of the telephone, the Post-it note and the discovery of Velcro have in common? All were discovered by accident. Usually scientific progress is associated with rigorous research and analysis, but it’s not always the case. A surprising number of discoveries owe a lot to chance.
Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin is one example. It took place in 1928 when he left a culture plate smeared with Staphylococcus bacteria on his lab bench while he went on a two-week holiday. He came home to see that the culture had been contaminated by a fungus, which stopped the bacteria growing. He had discovered an antibiotic!
This was by no means the first accidental discovery. Throughout the centuries, such discoveries have led to some of the world’s greatest breakthroughs in all areas of life. They were particularly numerous in the field of chemistry - take a look at the Xperimania timeline for many examples. Here are just a few more examples of inventions discovered by chance or ”happy accident” - sometimes discovered while scientists were looking for something entirely different!
- Post-it notes
Chance is not enough to make such key discoveries. The scientist or inventor must have a prepared and open mind, to detect and understand the importance of the unforeseen incident and to use it constructively. As the French scientist Louis Pasteur famously said: “In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind”. Although he was speaking at the inauguration of the Faculty of Science at the University of Lille in 1854, the quote is still relevant today.
The demand on scientific research is currently very high as it is key to solve society’s critical problems related to food, health or energy for instance. An unexpected chance event should not be overlooked. Tomorrow’s open and prepared minds must also be fostered. This preparatory work can start at school from a very early age. It is why science education is so crucial in the development of critical, informed and open minds which will deliver tomorrow’s innovations. Do you feel tempted by the challenge? Open your ears and mind, and maybe one day you will also be hit by “Eureka”!