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© Copyright 2003, Jim Loy
Serendip is an ancient Arabian name for Ceylon or Sri Lanka. Horace
Walpole had read a fairytale called The Three Princes of Serendip, in
which the three princes made many wonderful discoveries by accident. And so,
Walpole coined the term "serendipity," to mean a pleasant, accidental
discovery. In science, this is often a discovery made while looking for
something else. Here are a few:
- Buoancy principle: Hieron, the king of Syracuse, asked
Archimedes to determine if his crown was pure gold, or if he had been cheated.
But Archimedes had no way to accurately measure the volume of the crown
(knowing the density of gold, the volume would show if the crown was pure gold
or not). While getting into a bath tub, Archimedes saw that his body made the
water overflow, and had the insight that the volume of the overflowing water
was equal to the volume of his body, the buoancy principle. He is reported to
have run naked through the streets of Syracuse, shouting "Eureka" (I've found
it). It is said that the crown was not pure gold.
- Law of gravity: The story that Newton thought of the law of
gravity after being hit on the head by a falling apple is false. But he said
that he did see an apple fall from a tree, apparently while the moon was in the
sky, and that he then got the idea that what was pulling the apple downward was
the same force that held the moon in its orbit. And from that insight, he
deduced the law of universal gravitation.
- Electro-magnetism: In 1820, Hans Christian Oersted made the
extremely important discovery that electricity and magnetism were closely
related, while lecturing to his students. In the experiment an electric current
in a wire deflected a nearby magnetic compass needle. The unit of magnetic
field strength is now called the oersted.
- Vulcanized rubber: In 1839, Charles Goodyear was experimenting
with a heated mixture of rubber and sulphur, as others had done. The mixture
boiled over onto his stove, and he discovered vulcanized rubber, a hardened
rubber ideal for vehicle tires. He died more than a half-million dollars in
debt trying to promote vulcanized rubber and fighting patent
- Chemical structure of benzene: In 1865, Friedrich August
Kerkule von Stradonitz was trying to discover the chemical structure of
benzene. While almost dozing on a bus, he dreamed of carbon atoms swirling
around; then a chain of six of them formed into a spinning ring. He woke from
his dream knowing the structure of benzene.
- X-rays: In 1895, Wilhelm C. Roentgen was experimenting with
cathode rays (electron beams), when he noticed a glow from a fluorescent screen
in another part of his laboratory. He had discovered x-rays (originally called
Roentgen rays), for which he won the first Nobel Prize in physics, in
- Penicillin: In 1928, Alexander Fleming noticed that a culture
plate containing bacteria had been contaminated by a mold, and further
examination showed that the mold had killed the bacteria which were near it.
The mold was Penicillium notatum, from which Fleming isolated the chemical
penicillin. He shared the 1945 Nobel Prize for medicine and physiology.
- Cosmic Background Radiation: In 1964-65, Arno A. Penzias and
Robert W. Wilson were testing a very sensitive radio telescope antenna at Bell
Labs, but they could not get rid of the background noise. They found that the
radiation (their equipment was tuned to a wavelength of 7.35 centimeters) was
coming uniformly from all directions, implying that the source was not on
earth, or in the solar system, or even in the Milky Way galaxy. Then they heard
that theoreticians had recently predicted that radiation at just about that
same wavelength should be discovered, as a remnant of the Big Bang, the
beginning of the universe, showing a black body temperature of about three
Kelvin (three degrees above absolute zero). Penzias and Wilson won the 1978
Nobel Prize in physics.
- Pulsars: In 1967, Jocelyn Bell, using the radio telescope at
the Mullard Radio Astronomy Laboratory in Cambridge England, detected a pulsed
radio signal coming from the sky, which she reported to her employer Antony
Hewish. An early joke was that this signal came from LGM (little green men). It
turned out to be the first discovery of a pulsar, a rapidly rotating neutron
star. For this discovery, Hewish shared the 1974 Nobel Prize in physics, but
Bell did not.
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