Serendipity In Science

Most scientists accept the notion that serendipity plays a major role in their work. Too many discoveries have been, after all, the result of 'lucky accidents.' In the 16th century, for example, scalding with oil of elder was the preferred treatment for gunshot wounds. French physician Ambroise Pare learned otherwise when, after running out of oil during the siege on Turin, he found his untreated soldiers recovering better than the treated ones. Another example is Louis Pasteur. He left a culture of chicken cholera microbes in his lab while he took a three-month vacation. Its use upon his return led to the development of the first attenuated vaccine.

Scientists often find something of value while looking for something else. Rontgen's chance observation of a green glow in the corner of his laboratory led to the discovery of X-rays. [Radioactivity was unknown at the time. Rontgen had been trying to find out if cathode rays could pass through glass.] Finding a way to make rubber impervious to temperature changes became an obsession to Charles Goodyear. One day, in 1844, after countless unsuccessful trials, he dropped a mixture of rubber and sulfur on a hot stove. To his surprise, he found the mixture both flexible and tough over a wide range of temperatures. Vulcanization was born. Chance advances can be prompted by dreams. Kekule proposed the cyclical structure of the benzene ring after dreaming of a snake biting its tail. From a dream, Otto Loewi designed the definitive experiment that proved the chemical conduction of nervous impulses.

While most experts think serendipity is important in science, some reject the notion. Writes Lewis Wolpert in The Unnatural Nature of Science: 'Scientific research is based not on chance but on highly focused thoughts.... It is not by chance that it is always the great scientists who have the luck....We are surrounded all our lives by innumerable 'facts' and 'accidents'. The scientist's skill is to know which are important and how to interpret them.'

About the Author

Faith Brynie, Ph D

Faith BrynieFaith Brynie holds a B.A. in Biology from West Virginia University and an M.A. and Ph.D in science curriculum and instruction from the University of Colorado. She writes books and articles on science and health topics for children, teens, and non-scientist adults. Some of her books have won awards, including two 'Best Book of the Year' citations from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.