Last week we covered the bottom of the list in our blog of top accidental discoveries. This week we round off the rest of our list with our top two:
3. Things that make you go boom:
In some situations it may be ok to be a little clumsy in the lab. Maybe you’re experimenting with making pillows softer. But when your experiments deal primarily with nitroglycerine, safety should be somewhere near the top of the list on your daily activities. In 1860 Swiss chemist Alfred Nobel was doing just that (the experiments with nitroglycerine, not the safety). Nitroglycerine had only recently been discovered by Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero (and you thought Italians were only good for spaghetti and fist pumping).
Nitroglycerin is a powerful explosive that had the potential to be used in many applications. The problem was that nitroglycerine was extremely volatile, any slight shock applied to it and you no longer had any nitroglycerine, instead all you had a bunch of pieces of people who were unfortunate enough to be around it at the time, which have considerably less applications. Nobel, throwing caution to the wind decided to walk where others, who had blown their legs off, could no longer trod. Not content to simply mess around with a little nitroglycerin here and there Nobel went all out and opened his own nitroglycerin factory! Despite many setbacks (of which included his brother and four of his employees blowing up, followed shortly there after by having to relocate his factory due to a new law that no longer allowed explosive factories to be within the city limits) Nobel pressed on in his endeavor to find a safe way to use nitroglycerin. This endeavor nearly came to a sudden stop in 1866 when Nobel let a test tube of nitroglycerin slip from his hand. With gravity now in control of the vial of exploding death Nobel watched as the remainder of his life slowly fell towards the floor then… Nothing happened. The test tube happen to land in a crate full of sawdust . After a quick prayer and trip to the mens room to clean himself up  Nobel returned to find that the nitroglycerine had poured out of the test tube and was absorbed by the sawdust forming a malleable putty. Realizing this had made the nitroglycerine more stable he began experimenting by mixing it with other substances. He eventually used silica to mix with nitroglycerin with and was able to form a stable paste that could be molded into a cylindrical shape, wrapped in paper and detonated with use of a blasting cap. Dynamite was born.
2/1. The Fungus Among Us:
Alexander Fleming tops our list for multiple reason: The fact that he actually made two accidental discoveries and the utter sloppiness in which he made them. Alexander Fleming was a brilliant Scottish scientist who was renowned for work in developing new antiseptics, and for having a very messy lab.
Years before he made the monumental discovery that won him the Nobel Prize (named after the above Alfred Nobel. The guy who liked blowing things up) Fleming accidentally sneezed into a petri dish laced with bacteria. Instead of throwing the sample out Fleming shrugged his shoulders, cited some sort of laboratory three-second rule and kept the bacteria/snot laden petri dish. Several days later Fleming noticed that the bacteria in the dish had been destroyed by the mucus. What Fleming had stumbled upon was lysozyme, a naturally occurring enzyme found in all bodily fluids that has antibacterial properties. But lysozyme is like a fifth grade bully: It has no problem pushing down little girl bacteria on the playground but gets pummeled by the stronger, upper class bacteria. So Fleming continued his work to find a stronger antiseptic.
By 1928 Fleming was busy studying the properties of Staphylococcus Aureus. Busy that was until it came time for vacation at the beginning of August. So Fleming tidied up his lab, stored all his samples safely away and was careful to… No wait, that’s not what he did. What he did do was to hastily throw all petri dishes containing the dangerous bacteria in the sink of his lab before running out the door while yelling “Fleming out!”. When he returned to his lab on the 3rd of September (yes of the same year) he found what you would expect to find on any dishes left in the sink for nearly a month. He found mold. But on closer inspection he noticed that the fungus now growing in his petri dishes had destroyed the staphylococci bacteria. He identified the mold growing in the dish as the common fungus Penicillium notarum and in one of the greatest feats of creativity ever recorded named the new antibacterial substance penicillin. Fleming’s discovery marked the beginning of modern antibiotics and has been used treat countless infections, saving countless lives. Way to go Alexander!
Neil Hessenflow is the Director of Communications for TrippNT