Deepmala 41 – Lucky Accidents in Scientific Research

In science it is not only well planned research that leads to new breakthroughs. Sometimes we reach unknown destinations in science accidentally. This has happened for centuries. In 1786, Luigi Galvani noticed the accidental twitching of a frog’s leg and discovered the principle of electric battery. In 1858, William Henry Perkins was trying to synthesize Synthetic quinine from coal tar and he came across a coloured liquid, a synthetic dye. This was the beginning of the modern chemical industry. Leo Bakeland was looking for synthetic shellac and he accidentally found Bakelite. That was the beginning of the modern plastics industry. This is called serendipity when it knocks on your door, you have to hear the knock and respond to it, as did Galvani, Perkins and Bakeland.

Sometimes serendipity knocks on your door, but you do not hear it. The discovery of Superglue, is a classical case. Harry Coover of Eastman Chemical Company was assigned the problem of finding an optically clear plastic from which precision gunsights could be cast. He was working with some chemicals but everything these chemicals touched stuck to everything else, which he recorded. However, he didn’t see this as serendipity, just as a severe pain! The adhesive qualities of these chemicals were a serious obstacle in his path.

Moving ahead a few years to 1951, there was a need to discover stronger, tougher and more hear-resistant polymers for jet plans canopies. Coover was now supervising a new crop of eager young chemists. Someone in the group prepared what he thought was a pure sample of chemical and decided to measure its refractive index in order to characterize its purity. The measurement was made and recorded. When the scientists attempted to separate the prisms, they could not! They were worried that the prisms were ruined. Coover, however, suddenly realized that what they had was not a useless instrument, but a unique adhesive. Serendipity had given him a second chance, but this time his alert mental process led to inspiration. Immediately, Coover asked the scientists for a sample of his this chemical and began gluing everything he could lay his hands on – glass plates, rubber stoppers, metal spatulas, wood, paper, plastic – in all combinations. Everything stuck to everything, almost instantly, and with bonds that could not break apart. In that one afternoon new adhesives were conceived, purely as the result of serendipity. These adhesives not only had a significant impact on consumer and industrial applications, but also became a promising answer to a surgeon’s dream of a tissue adhesive.

One cannot help wondering as to how many potentially important inventions lie dormant in the recorded observations of scientists, which at the time were judged to be irrelevant to their research objective. This should serve as a reminder to all of us to be open-minded and curious enough to pursue unexplained events and unexpected results that may unlock new secrets and lead to new and exciting discoveries in the future.

The greatest accident was in 1929. When a gust of wind blowing over Alexander Flemings moulds, contaminated them. The clues he had from this led to the discovery of Pencillian and the new antibiotic age. As a proud Indian, it worries me as to why such a wind did not blow over the laboratories of Indian innovators! Why did we not get one breakthrough, which had the potential to lead India to such a new industry or even an entirely new product through such accidents? Does this mean that those lucky accidents did not at all take place in India? Or if they did take place, were we equipped enough to spot them? What should not be forgotten is that a trained mind is required to spot these accidents. Eyes do not see what the mind does not know. Our training of our young students in science has to change so that they continue to look for the unexpected. Then only will we have such breakthroughs. I hope that what we missed in twentieth century will happen in the twenty first century.