Earlier this week, ScienceOmega.com
published a feature interview with Dr Janet Voight, Associate Curator of Zoology at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. In this article, Deep-sea animals hitch rides on submarines
, Dr Voight explained how she and her colleagues inadvertently transported some hardy limpets 635km north of their usual stomping ground* to the Juan de Fuca Ridge.
Initially, Dr Voight was distressed by this realisation. Not only did it nullify the original objectives of her research, but the transference of foreign species to new ecosystems can have harmful impacts on native animals. However, Dr Voight and her co-authors soon realised that this ‘unhappy’ accident represented a documented case in which an alien species had been introduced into a new habitat. These pesky hitchhikers turned out to represent somewhat of a revelation.
Yes, accidents are only accidents when they precipitate negative consequences. Examples include: ‘I accidentally spilt coffee on your laptop,’ ‘I accidentally ran over your Guinea pig,’ and the time-honoured classic, ‘I accidentally slept with your sister.’
Science is full to the brim with accidental discoveries. For example, after re-synthesising LSD-25 in 1943, Dr Albert Hofmann had to retire to a dark room and await the cessation of his internal light show. In 1992, British chemists trying to help angina sufferers ended up inducing pronounced penile erections, and, in doing so, created Viagra. Of course, the granddaddy of accidental pioneers was Sir Alexander Fleming who, in 1928, discovered penicillin by dint of being so filthy that mould had started to accumulate on his scientific crockery.
Velcro, telephones, Post-it Notes, Teflon, microwave ovens and countless other wonders of modernity were also born from haphazard beginnings. This just goes to show that every cloud has a silver lining, that life is like a box of chocolates and that a fair proportion of the scientific community consists of hyper-intelligent blaggers.**
In fact, I would go as far as to say that most
discoveries are accidental. This fact – as I am calling it from now on – would be more widely acknowledged if it wasn’t for the unflinching temptation that at one time or another has afflicted every person on this planet; the temptation to mutter the immortal words: ‘I meant to do that.’ Yes, accidents are only accidents when they precipitate negative consequences. Examples include: ‘I accidentally spilt coffee on your laptop,’ ‘I accidentally ran over your Guinea pig,’ and the time-honoured classic, ‘I accidentally slept with your sister.’
I can’t help but suspect that had the aforementioned womaniser slept with his or her partner’s sister and by doing so, accidentally uncovered a new, low-carbon energy source, the admission would transmogrify into the following statement: ‘I suspected that sleeping with your sister might result in the discovery of a new, low-carbon energy source, and by Jove, I was right!’
Yes, accidents happen and sometimes they’re happy. Whilst I do not doubt that some scientists set out to prove their hypotheses and do so successfully, these cases probably represent the minority. Science is about trial and error, and we’re just not very good at admitting our errors. Then again, everything
is about trial and error. Take my life. If I were telling its long and meandering story, I would have you believe that all of my steps and missteps were carefully planned and executed with aplomb.*** It would be more accurate to say that everything I have ever done, I have fallen into, and that I clumsily manage to place myself in mortal danger approximately three times per day. Things aren’t going badly, considering, but I haven’t yet been lucky enough to discover penicillin the sequel.****
The point is that you need to start off with at least a clue. Look at all of these accidental pioneers. Unlike me, they are not half-wits optimistically waiting for a winning lottery ticket to land in their pocket. They are accomplished scientists and inventors who are doing everything they can to make things happen. I don’t like the turn of phrase, ‘I don’t believe in luck’. It is almost always sneered by some insufferable, but wealthy, self-congratulating eejit whose entire life has been built upon good fortune. However, I am comfortable with the notion of being ‘in it to win it’, and that is what science is all about. Whilst the word ‘breakthrough’ might be a synonym for ‘happy accident’, researchers work tirelessly to get to that point. Discoveries are accidental, but they are not undeserved. Long live the accidental scientist!
* Perhaps sucking ground?
** Obviously, I am not grouping Dr Voight in this category, although she is most certainly hyper-intelligent
*** From an early age, I knew that I would become the editor of a science website
**** Penicillin 2: Resistance is Futile