Saturday, May 2, 2015

Serendipity: how the vogue word became vague

In the history of human scientific progress chance discoveries have played a major role. But the chance finds have always succeeded in hogging the limelight only when followed by careful and systematic scientific analysis.

What does the discovery of America, Teflon, and cornflakes have in common? They were all the results of serendipity. Serendipity is defined as the ability of making fortunate and unexpected discoveries by accident. This term has an interesting origin. It was coined in 1754, by an English novelist- Horace Walpole. Horace enjoyed foraging through reference works for information, and once chanced upon what he called ‘an exotic fairy tale’ that caught his imagination. It was the story of three princes of Serendib who were highly trained in arts and sciences. (Serendib was the anglicized version of swarnadweepa- Sone ki lanka, the old name of Srilanka). The three princes were privileged individuals not only gifted by their noble origin but also endowed with a unique talent: the gift of casual discovery. These three individuals were able to find answers to questions or mysteries they were not in search of. Thanks to their natural sagacity they would solve unexpected dilemmas. Stopping at an inn on evening, they met a distraught man who had lost his camel. Although the three princes had not seen the camel, they asked the camel driver if the lost camel was blind in one eye, missing a tooth, and lame. This description were based on signs they had observed along their way. They also deduced that it probably carried a load of butter on one side and honey on the other, and was ridden by a pregnant woman. After this detailed description of the camel, the camel driver was convinced that the three princes had stolen his camel, and they were imprisoned. Later on, when the camel was found, the princes were released.
Horace must have found the gift of the three princes’ sublime. Though quite difficult to describe, he invented an expressive little word for their unique gift- SERENDITY.
Keep that mind open
In examining many of science’s most famous moments, serendipity has played a crucial role and we owe a debt to serendipity for some of the greatest discoveries in science. However, one needs to be aware that many of the principal beneficiaries of serendipity ‘clearly recognized’ the difference between an accident and an accidental discovery. In this context, Louis Pasteur put forth the famous quote, “in the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.
One of the most amazing accidental discoveries in science is the invention of Dynamite Swedish scientist Alfred Nobel in 1873. The invention was also fortuitous because it led to the creation of today’s Nobel prizes. It happened when Nobel was trying to control the super powerful explosive nitroglycerine, which had killed hundreds of people including Alfred’s brother, Emil. In the lab, Nobel combined many substances with nitroglycerine; but nothing defused the explosives unmanageability. One day, Nobel noticed that nitroglycerine was leaking from its storage casks and being soaked up by the diatomaceous earth used to pack and protect the containers. When he examined the leak, Nobel found the diatomaceous earth absorbed three times its own weight of nitroglycerine. Moreover, when dry, the mixture could be hit with by a hammer and even set afire without exploding. Only a blasting cap would set off the new explosive. Nobel become fabulously wealthy but was nonetheless troubled by the death and destruction caused by some who used dynamite for nefarious purposes or in warfare. To help offset some of the mayhem, he used his great wealth to set up a fund which stills provides the cash awards given out yearly along with the Noble Prizes. And the list goes on…
For instance, the man whose name graces a thousand years- Charles Goodyear- worked out how to get rubber from an awkward material that melted in warm weather, when he accidently dropped a piece on a stove. And thus began an age in which natural substances could be altered through industrial processes. Neoprene was also serendipitous find made when a lab assistant left a chemical impurity in a test tube for over a weekend. A week and a half later, in the same laboratory, the first artificial fiber was created, also by accident by the scientist in charge, Wallace Carothers- a development that lead to nylon. In yet another incidence in the early 1950s, George de mestral while returning home after a walk in the countryside in Switzerland, noticed that his coat was covered with cockleburs. As he tried to pick them off, he wondered why they were so sticky. In search of an answer, he with the help of a microscope discovered that cockleburs are covered with hooks that became embedded in the loops of the fabric. This knowledge of the cockleburs spawned development of a product known as Velcro (derived from velvet and crochet). In another incidence, German physicians’ joseph von mering and Oscar minkowski removed pancreas from a healthy dog in order to study the role of pancreas in digestion. Several days after the dogs pancreas was removed, the doctors happened to notice a swarm os flies feeding on a puddle of the dog’s urine. On testing the urine to determine the cause of the flies’ attraction, the doctors realized that the dog was secreting sugar in its urine, assign of diabetes. Because the dog was healthy prior to the surgery, the doctors knew that they had created its diabetic condition by removing its pancreas and thus understood for the first time the relationship between the pancreas and diabetes.
Examples of serendipity in science:
1.    1.    Polyethylene by Hans von Pechmann, who prepared it by accident in 1898 while heating diazomethane.
2.     2.   Bioelectricity, by Luigi Galvani. He was dissecting a frog at a table where he had been performing experiments with static electricity. Galvani’s assistant touched an exposed sciatic nerve of the frog with a metal scalpel, which had picked up a charge, provoking a muscle contraction.
3.     3.   S.N. Bose discovered Bose- Einstein statistics when a mathematical error explained anomalous data.
4.      4.  Electromagnetism, by Hans Christian Oersted. While he was setting up his material for a lecture, he noticed a compass needle deflecting from magnetic north when the electric current from the battery he was using was switched on and off.
5.     5.   Discovery of the principle behind inkjet printers by a canon engineer. After putting his hot soldering iron by accident on his pen, ink was ejected from the pens point a few moments later.
And the List goes on.
1.     1.   Science reporter, (Edition: May, 2008)
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