Forever enshrined in scientific legend, the discovery of penicillin—a group of antibiotics used to combat a variety of bacterial infections—is really just a case of dirty dishes. Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming took an August vacation from his day-to-day work in the lab investigating staphylococci, known commonly as staph. Upon his return on Sept. 3, 1928, the perceptive scientist found a strange fungus on a culture he had left in his lab—a fungus that had killed off all surrounding bacteria in the culture. Modern medicine was never the same.
Sometimes all you really need to make the next leap in science is a snack. Percy Spencer was an American engineer who, while working for Raytheon, walked in front of a magnetron, a vacuum tube used to generate microwaves, and noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket melted. In 1945 after a few more experiments (one involving an exploding egg), Spencer successfully invented the first microwave oven. The first models were a lot like the early computers: bulky and unrealistic. In 1967, compact microwaves would begin filling American homes.
Snacking, then, is good for science. And so is getting a little fresh air now and then. On one particular hiking trip in 1941, Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral found burrs clinging to his pants and also to his dog’s fur. On closer inspection, he found that the burr’s hooks would cling to anything loop-shaped. If he could only artificially re-create the loops, he might be on to something.
The result: Velcro. A combination of the words “velvet” and “crochet,” the material had trouble gaining traction in the fashion industry. But one of its most notable clients in the 1960s was NASA. The agency used the material in flight suits and to help secure items in zero gravity. After that, it became a space-age fashion all its own, allowing kids everywhere to put off learning how to tie shoelaces.
The Big Bang
“Big things have small beginnings.” All right, so that’s actually a quote from Michael Fassbender in (Prometheus,) but nothing could be more true for radio astronomer duo Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias. The secret to discovering the prevailing theory to how the universe was made began with noise, like common radio static. In 1964, while working with the Holmdel antenna in New Jersey, the two astronomers discovered a background noise that left them perplexed. After ruling out possible interference from urban areas, nuclear tests, or pigeons living in the antenna, Wilson and Penzias came across an explanation with Robert Dicke’s theory that radiation leftover from a universe-forming big bang would now act as background cosmic radiation.
In fact, only 37 miles from the Holmdel antenna at Princeton University, Dicke and his team had been searching for this background radiation. When he heard the news of Wilson and Penzias’ discovery, he famously told his research partners, “well boys, we’ve been scooped.” Penzias and Wilson would go on to receive the Nobel Prize.
In 1938, Roy Plunkett, a scientist with DuPont, was working on ways to make refrigerators more home-friendly by searching for ways to replace the current refrigerant, which was primarily ammonia, sulfur dioxide, and propane. After opening the container on one particular sample he’d been developing, Plunkett found his experimental gas was gone. All that was left was a strange, slippery resin that was resistant to extreme heat and chemicals.
In the 1940s the material was used by the Manhattan project. A decade later it found its way into the automotive industry. It wasn’t until the ’60s that Teflon would be used for its most noted application: nonstick cookware.
In the 1830s, natural rubber was a popular substance for waterproof shoes and boots, but its inability to withstand freezing temperatures and extreme heat soon left consumers and manufacturers frustrated. That led some to say rubber had no future, but Charles Goodyear disagreed. After years of trial and error trying to make rubber more durable, the scientist stumbled upon his greatest discovery by complete accident. In 1839, when showcasing his latest experiment, Goodyear accidentally dropped his rubber concoction on a hot stove. What he discovered was a charred leather-like substance with an elastic rim. Rubber was now weatherproof.
Goodyear would never reap the benefits of his discovery and died $200,000 in debt. His surname and legacy live on, however, in the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, which was named after him nearly 40 years after his death.
The inventor of the Coca-Cola wasn’t a shrewd businessman, a seller of sweets, or a dreamer looking to strike it rich in the beverage business. John Pemberton just wanted to cure headaches. A pharmacist by profession, Pemberton used two main ingredients in his hopeful headache cure: coca leaves and cola nuts. When his lab assistant accidentally mixed the two with carbonated water, the world’s first Coke was the result. Over the years, Coke would tinker with the now-secret recipe. But sadly, Pemberton died two years later and never saw his simple mixture give birth to a soft drink empire.
Bad weather can be the spark of serendipity, too. In 1896, French scientist Henri Becquerel was working on an experiment involving a uranium-enriched crystal. He believed that sunlight was the reason that the crystal would burn its image on a photographic plate. With dark clouds rolling in, Becquerel packed up his gear and decided to continue his research on another sunny day.
A few days later, he retrieved the crystal from a darkened drawer, but the image burned on the plate (above) was, as he described, “fogged.” The crystal emitted rays that fogged a plate, but were dismissed as weaker rays compared to William Roentgen’s X-ray. Becquerel wouldn’t go on to put a name to the phenomenon. He left that for two fellow scientists: Pierre and Marie Curie.
Angina Pectoris is a fancy name for chest pain—specifically, spasms in the heart’s coronary arteries. The pharmaceutical company Pfizer developed a pill named UK92480 to help constrict these arteries to relieve pain. The pill failed its primary purpose, but the secondary side effect was startling. The drug became known as Viagra, and you know what it does. Pfizer sold $288 million worth of the little blue pill in the first quarter of 2013.
Sometimes homework pays off, even when it blows up in your face. Chemistry graduate student Jamie Link was working on a silicon chip at the University of California, San Diego. When the chip shattered, she discovered (with the help of her professor) that the tiny bits of the chip were still sending signals, operating as tiny sensors. They coined the term “smart dust” for the small, self-assembling particles. Smart dust has a myriad of potential applications and plays a large role in attacking and destroying tumors.