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Oops: Look what I found

| December 9, 2010 8:00 PM

Louis Pasteur said that chance favors the prepared mind. So while it's amusing to learn of valuable scientific discoveries that occurred by "accident," doubtless few would have made it far had they occurred to average people. Then again, some of the stories make you wonder.

Or feel sick.

Taste, then wash: Saccharin - that first popular sugar substitute - was literally discovered by filthy habit. Russian-born chemist Constantin Fahlberg was working on new uses for coal tar at Johns Hopkins University in 1879. He didn't wash his dust-covered hands before going home. When lips met dirty hands, he discovered they tasted rather sweet and anhydroorthosulphaminebenzoic acid - saccharin - was born.

Drink Coke? Thank Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberten. In a brass kettle in his backyard Dr. Pemberten was trying to make a cure for the common headache in 1886. Like for Fahlberg, one taste said it all.

Winter weather favors magic rocks: French physicist Henri Becquerel was trying to experiment outdoors with x-rays in the winter of 1896 (have you noticed how productive the late 1800s were?). Frustrated by overcast skies, he stuffed his materials in a drawer to wait for a sunny day. When he later pulled the drawer open, he noticed the uranium rock he'd left there had imprinted itself on a photographic plate, in the dark. With the help of Marie Curie they discovered radiation.

Some mistakes save lives: When American engineer Wilson Greatbach reached in a box of resistors (devices which control electric current), he was aiming for one with 10,000 ohms to build a recording instrument. Instead, he grabbed a one-megaohm resistor and accidentally installed it. He heard a repeating pulse just like a heartbeat. The rest is pacemaker history.

Finally, the most famous accidental invention of all: penicillin. Like Fahlberg, Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming was one messy genius. He left his workstation, where he was experimenting with staphylococcus bacteria, without cleaning up one night in 1928. In the morning he discovered a weird fungus - weird, because bacteria steered clear of it. Antibiotics changed the course of human illness, although it took him until 1940 to get serious scientific attention to his discovery.

"Name the greatest of all inventors: Accident." - Mark Twain

Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email sholehjo@hotmail.com.

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