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The World's Greatest By-Chance Discoveries

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Introduction: The Eureka Moment

Well over 2000 years ago, on the island of Syracuse, Archimedes helped his king (and friend) Hiero expose an unscrupulous craftsman. His moment of inspiration came while watching water spill over the edge of a bathtub. Whether it's true or not, Archimedes' "Eureka Moment" remains the model for the flash of inspiration behind scientific discovery and technological innovation. These moments could happen to any of us—Archimedes was not the first man to spill the bathwater—but it takes more than just random chance to create a Eureka Moment. Archimedes saw the water spill, and he was prepared to see the implications because he knew that a volume of gold was heavier than an identical volume of silver. And, whether it sprang from the need to help his friend or to build his reputation, Archimedes had the desire to determine if his flash of insight would prove true.

Mythic Moments: Apocryphal Apples

Before the age of the scientist, "natural philosophers" sought to understand the physical world without much of a framework. Because separate scientific disciplines had not been established, these natural philosophers studied everything and were open to following their observations wherever they led. The same lack of framework meant their investigations often strayed into unproductive areas such as astrology, alchemy, and the occult, but the true sciences progressed. Through the centuries as the body of scientific knowledge grew, chance played a role in significant discoveries—or so the stories go.

The Age of Reason, the Emergence of Mystery

As scientific inquiry matured, and the profession of "scientist" was born, there was an expectation that the tools of science would reveal the secrets of the universe, step-by-step in logical progression. In large measure, that expectation was met then, and continues to be met today. But even at the time, the role of chance was not ignored. Scientific progress became recognized as a combination of steady, directed inquiry working in concert with chance circumstance and flashes of insight.

Living by the Rules, Thinking Outside the Box

The turn of the twentieth century brought a marked acceleration in the rate of scientific progress, but the discoveries seemed to point to a world that wasn't governed by understandable, consistent physical laws. Scientists felt some measure of frustration as their ordered approach revealed an increasing disorder, especially in the world of physics. This was a time that required an ordered approach to scientific investigation, at the same time as it demanded flashes of insight. How many of those flashes of insight would have been delayed if chance didn't play a part?

Complex Connections: Serendipity Across Disciplines

The middle of the twentieth century brought increasing specialization. Researchers wanting to make significant progress in a scientific field needed to spend years acquiring deeply specialized knowledge and then find a niche where questions remained. The intense focus required singleminded attention to the problem at hand, but that sort of singleminded attention inhibited receptivity to chance events. Chance events are not discoveries, they are catalysts to discovery. If these serendipitous observations didn't lie in a scientist's field of focus, would they be followed to their conclusions? Happily for scientific progress, the boundaries of scientific disciplines were no boundaries to scientific curiosity.

The Corporate Model: Chance in Big Science

The late twentieth century saw an evolution in the model of scientific research. Several trends combined to further compartmentalize scientific research. Grants are awarded for specific investigations, decreasing the flexibility to chase down chance observations. Corporate research and development is equally targeted. And "big science"—efforts involving many institutions and scores, hundreds, or even thousands of scientists and engineers—offers little opportunity to pursue anything not in the plan. These trends prompted some to ask "is serendipity dead?" It may be less important, but chance still has a role to play in scientific discovery.

Living with Chance: Preparation and Desire

Throughout the centuries chance observations or events have triggered scientific discovery and technical innovations. The scientists who benefitted from serendipity were not "lucky," except in the sense that preparation and focussed desire create "luck." So what role will chance events play in the future of scientific discovery?

About the Author

Richard Gaughan is a research engineer whose decades of experience in the aerospace industry and U.S. National Laboratories have provided him intimate familiarity with the role of chance observation in technological development. He has written hundreds of articles covering subjects as diverse as the creation of antimatter, quantum teleportation, space telescopes, solid state lighting, and advanced medical imaging methods.

Summary of the Anecdotes


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