Scientific Anthology: Serendipity


Serendipity is defined as "luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for." (1)

This anthology provides examples of scientific serendipity. This will introduce a number of scientists, inventions, and theories that all came about because of serendipity. This theme was clear throughout the books that we read during the semester and we wanted to prove that serendipity really exists in the scientific community as well as the world around us.

  1. (n.d.). Retrieved May 09, 2016, from

Penicillin (VIDEO)

In 1928, Alexander Fleming, a Scottish biologist, was cleaning his laboratory when he stumbled onto a petri dish that had been left open by accident which had the bacteria staphylococcus aureus growing in it. Also on the petri dish was an unknown, blue mold that had "a halo of inhibited bacterial growth around the mold." (1) Fleming realized that the mold was releasing a compound that was inhibiting, then killing the bacteria in the petri dish. This mold was part of the genus Penicillium, and later confirmed to be Penicillium notatum (2). However, it was not until the late 1930s that two scientists, Howard Florey, an Australian pathologist, and Ernst Boris Chain, a British biochemist, were able to isolate and purify penicillin (2); and in 1941 they had created an injectable version of penicillin for therapeutic use.

Scientists have since learned why penicillin is so effective against bacteria. Penicillin releases a compound that inhibits the enzymes that bacteria use to create their cell walls, which is what protects the inside of the bacteria from the hostile environment outside (2). Additionally, penicillin, at the same time, releases other enzymes that help break down the cell walls. It is a double whammy for the bacteria because not only is it's cell being broken down, but it cannot repair it because of the enzyme inhibiters (2).

1. Bud, Robert (2009). Penicillin: Triumph and Tragedy. Oxford University Press.



Teflon, is one of the most slippery and inert (un-reactive) substances known to mankind; commonly found on non-stick pots and pans, teflon is used in almost every industry in some way, shape, or form. On April 6, 1938, Chemours chemist, Roy J. Plunkett was trying to find a viable replacement for Chemours Freon™ refrigerators. Plunkett began experimenting with "tetrafluoroethylene" and one day "upon checking a frozen, compressed sample of tetrafluoroethylene, he and his associates discovered that the sample had polymerized spontaneously into a white, waxy solid to form polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)" (1). PTFE is highly inert, meaning it will react to virtually nothing, and is believed to be the slipperiest material in existence. PTFE is used in "areas such as aerospace, communications, electronics, industrial processes and architecture" (1) The creation of Teflon won Chemours and Roy J. Plunkett numerous honors from organizations and governments around the world for such a pioneering substance. In 1985, Plunkett was inducted into the National Inventor's Hall of Fame, for his work on Teflon; and in 1990 President George H.W. Bush awarded Chemours the National Medal of Technology for their effort in the production of Teflon. (1)

The Microwave

In 1945, Percy Spencer, an American engineer accidentally discovered the heating capabilities of microwaves. Spencer was working for the american defense contractor Raytheon on "active radar sets" when he noticed that the radar he was working on started to melt a chocolate candy bar in his pocket. Spencer "wasn't the first person to notice that microwaves generate heat, but he was the first person to think of using this heat to cook food." (2)

To verify his discovery, Spencer created a "high density electromagnetic field by feeding microwave power from a magnetron into a metal box from which it had no way to escape" (1), when Spencer put food into the metal box and turned his new machine on, the food inside the box was heated rapidly by the microwaves in the chamber, confirming his suspicions. The first food to be warmed up in Spencer's microwave box was none other than kernels of corn which popped into popcorn. (2) In 1947, Raytheon created the first commercially viable microwave called the "Radarange".(3) But it wouldn't be until 1955 that the first domestic microwaves were sold by Tappan Stove Company, who had partnered with Raytheon to mass produce their microwaves.



The Big Bang 

The Big Bang Theory was not a serendipitous discovery, it took many decades for scientists to gather enough evidence to prove that this theory was correct; however, the discovery of the proof of the big bang was serendipitous. The initial idea for the big band theory began with what is known as the "doppler" effect, or doppler shift (1). The main idea is that when an object is moving away from you light (or sound) waves are stretched in the back of the object and compressed in the front of the object, the stretched waves would appear "red" shifted, and the compressed waves would appear "blue" shifted, due to each colors relative wavelength (1). What scientists discovered was that the entire universe, from earth's point of view, was red shifted, meaning that everything, was moving away from us, or expanding; then, if you then rewind the clock to a certain point you will see the entire universe compress into a singularity. However, this was not the proof needed to confirm the big bang theory and reject the "steady state" theory, scientists needed proof of "hot" big bang. (3)

This is where our serendipitous moment comes in. In the 1960s scientists Robert Woodrow Wilson and Arno Penzias, using an extremely sensitive radio telescope were trying to study low levels of radio waves in space, in order to find the temperatures of the objects emitting the radio waves.(4) After registering the temperature of space to be 4 degrees higher than expected, Wilson and Penzias attempted to rule out any variables that could be affecting their data, including a recent nuclear test, their proximity to New York City, and pigeon droppings, but none of them worked (2). It wasn't until Wilson and Penzias made the connection between Princeton theoretical physicist Robert Dicke's idea of a hot big bang's radiation cooling down to microwaves, and their background noise, that they realized that they had discovered the evidence for a hot big bang. The Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), what the scientists called their discovery, is the proof that the big bang was indeed a hot expansion because it showed that along with the expansion of matter, a massive blast of radiation also came from the big bang, which would still be detectable in the form of microwaves.(5)





X-Rays (VIDEO)

In 1895, German physicist, Wilhelm Roentgen was working with a cathode ray tube, a glass cylinder that had an anode (+) and cathode (-) in it and had all the air evacuated out of it. Roentgen designed an experiment where he enclosed the entire cathode ray tube in a black cardboard box, turned off the lights, and provided the tube with high voltage. What Roentgen found was that when he turned on his ray tube at high energy, a photographic plate in his lab began to glow; no other cathode rays could pass through the black cardboard, whatever was passing through the cardboard was not a cathode ray.(1) "Through additional experiments, he also found that the new ray would pass through most substances casting shadows of solid objects on pieces of film. He named the new ray X-ray, because in mathematics "X" is used to indicated the unknown quantity."(2) Then came the discovery that we see every time we go to the hospital, Roentgen had his wife come down to his lab to show her what he had been working on. Roentgen had his wife put her hand over a photographic plate, and he turned on his cathode ray tube. What came out of this experiment was the first x-ray of a human hand, and Roentgen's wife is rumored to have said "I have seen my death!"(1)



Safety Glass (VIDEO)

Safety glass was created by an accident. The creator of the glass was Edouard Benedictus who was a french inventor. In 1903, Benedictus dropped a flask but instead of breaking it just spread glass on the floor. This was were serendipity stepped in. Benedictus figured out that the glass had once contained "plastic cellulose nitrate, which had dried on the flask and created a type of adhesive film coating the inside, which kept the glass from shattering in the normal fashion." (2) This encouraged Benedictus to begin creating a shatter proof glass. This glass was not used at first for cars but instead used during World War I as eye pieces in gas masks. Without Benedictus' mistake, we would not have gotten the invention of safety glass.

The process of making safety glass is not very hard which is why safety glass is so easily mass produced. "The most popular modern process of creating laminated safety glass is to take two layers of annealed glass and place a layer of polyvinyl butyral between them. The glass is then run through a series of rollers which are designed to expel any air pockets in between the layers. During this process, the glass is also heated in a pressurized oil bath to around 160 degrees Fahrenheit (70 degrees Celsius) in order to bond the layers together." (2)


  2. Laminated Safety Glass was Invented by Accident. (2011). Retrieved May 09, 2016, from


This video recreates how velcro works in a large scale model.

Velcro was another thing that was created from a serendipitous moment. A swiss engineer, George de Mestral, was in the mountains of Switzerland and noticed that the cockle-burs were stuck on his pants. He was curious to why they so easily got stuck on objects. Under a microscope he was able to see that the cockle-burs had tiny hooks that would latch onto the fabric of his clothes. George de Mestral "along with help from friends in the weaving business, finally duplicated mother natures hook and loop fastener in the manufacturing plant. The result of his new invention was Velcro ® brand fasteners, from the French words for velvet "velour", and hook, "crochet"." This was used by NASA in astronauts suits and to help secure objects in space. (1)

  1. . Invention of Velcro® Brand Hook and Loop. (n.d.). Retrieved May 09, 2016, from

Vulcanized Rubber

Vulcanized Rubber is a rubber that has been made more durable by a biochemical process. During vulcanization the latex is heated and thus made more durable. In the mid 1830s, Charles Goodyear was determined to develop vulcanized rubber. He was not a chemist though and viewed as something of a mad man by his peers. Finally he found out that "y uniformly heating sulfur- and lead-fortified rubber at a relatively low temperature, he could render the rubber melt-proof and reliable. He patented the process in 1844, licensed it to manufacturers and was ultimately hailed as a genius." (1)

Vulcanized rubber is used in tires, rubber seals, belts, shoe soles and hockey pucks. The Goodyear tire was also named after Goodyear in honor of his creation.

  1. Charles Goodyear. (n.d.). Retrieved May 09, 2016, from


The discovery of radioactivity was in 1896. Henri Becquerel was using minerals to study x-rays. He "exposed potassium uranyl sulfate to sunlight and then placed it on photographic plates wrapped in black paper, believing that the uranium absorbed the sun’s energy and then emitted it as x-rays...To his surprise, the images were strong and clear, proving that the uranium emitted radiation without an external source of energy such as the sun. Becquerel had discovered radioactivity." (1) He figured out that x-rays are neutral so radiation must be different than that of x-rays.

Although the term of radioactivity was not created by Becquerel. Instead Marie Curie was the one who came up with this term. She extracted uranium from ore and found that the leftover had more activity. (1)

There are also some studies on how radioactivity effects human health. Radiation kills cells in the body and may leave some long term effects. These include "nausea and damage to organs including bone marrow and the lymph nodes...Larger doses will, in addition to those symptoms above, cause haemorrhaging, sterility and skin to peel off..." (2)

  1. The Discovery of Radioactivity. (n.d.). Retrieved May 09, 2016, from

  2. What is radioactivity?| Explore | (n.d.). Retrieved May 09, 2016, from


The Match

John Walker was a pharmacist who worked with actual chemicals. He liked to experiment with many different substances. He created a type of paste that could light on fire. He began to create prototypes of matches, that he sold in his town. Sulfur was on the tip of the wood which was not always trustworthy. Sometimes it would not stay on the wood and would fall off and cause damage. (1)

  1. John Walker - Inventor of the Friction Match. (n.d.). Retrieved May 09, 2016, from

Role of Serendipity in Science

The paper, “Homo creativus: creativity and serendipity management in third generation science and technology parks,” by Ilkka Kakko and Sam Inkinen proposes the question is if the exchange of ideas has led to new discoveries in the scientific community.  It breaks down the the creative process and analyzes it part by part.  It names diversity as one the most important parts of innovation.  As of late, “Diverse social networks are becoming the natural, ambient environments for today’s knowledge workers. The more diverse the team, the higher is the probability that they will generate breakthrough innovations.” (Kakko and Inkinen pg. 540)  When people bounce ideas off each other and have different trains of thought or methods to approach a problem, innovation has a good chance of occurring.  Kakko and Inkinen also name serendipity management and facilitation of flow as important parts of the creative process.  For serendipity management they mention that “incidental encounters and beneficial collisions play a significant role in innovation processes.” (Kakko and Inkinen pg. 540)  Sometimes it is better to stumble upon a good idea instead of forcing it to come to you.  As for facilitation of flow they write that “the key factor and vital enabler of motivation is a certain state of mind.” (Kakko and Inkinen pg. 545)  In order to maximize your creativity you must be open to many different ideas and points of view.  Creative serendipity is not an easy thing to come by, but can results in great achievements or advances in the field of science.

    1. Ilkka Kakko and Sam Inkinen. Retrieved May 9, 2016, from

The Surgeon and the Biochemist

An article, “Of Serendipity and Science,” by Arthur Kornberg addresses the fact that many discoveries in the field of medicine have been the result of “investigations that seemed totally irrelevant to any practical objectives.” (Kornberg pg. 1)  It starts off with a parable of a surgeon who is jogging around a lake and constantly saving people who are drowning.  He runs into a biochemist who is just watching all these people drown and not doing anything.  The biochemist defends himself by saying that he is trying to figure out who is throwing all the people in the lake, instead of saving the people themselves.  The lesson that this parable teaches is that saving the people seemed like the practical thing to do, but by saving them, the surgeon was not doing anything to prevent more people from being thrown in the water, or essentially solving the problem at hand.  The biochemist is just standing there and watching, but by doing so he will come to a resolution much quicker than the surgeon and will be able to prevent people from drowning altogether.  The article goes on to give examples of some accidental discoveries in the field of medicine.  There are some huge finds that happened completely on accident, such as, “X-rays were discovered by a physicist observing discharges in vacuum tubes, penicillin came from enzyme studies of bacterial lysis, and the polio vaccine came from learning how to grow cells in culture.” (Kornberg pg. 1)  The scientists behind the discoveries of these significant vaccines had not aimed to discover what they had.  Instead, they stumbled upon their respected discoveries and applied them in practical ways, which resulted in huge advancements in the medical field.

  1. Arthur Kornberg. Retrieved May 9, 2016, from

Serendipity is a Myth

The scientific paper, “Discovery Is Never by Chance: Designing for (Un)Serendipity,” by Paul Andre and Jaime Teevan shows the role that serendipity plays in the world of computer science.  Serendipity is mostly thought of as it applies to the natural sciences, but it is also relevant in the world of computer science.  In the field of computer science, programs that force serendipity are frowned upon.  The authors clearly state that, “The other systems that explicitly try to induce serendipity largely work in the background or in the periphery…” (Andre and Teevan pg. 5)  In computer science, certain programs can influence the mind to think in a certain way, which will not result in serendipitous ideas.  The best computer programs force the human mind to make its own assumptions and think for itself, which could lead to innovation and new discoveries.  But, this article also disputes the authenticity of serendipitous ideas when it says that “serendipitous discoveries are preceded by a period of preparation and incubation.” (Andre and Teevan pg. 7)  This implies that most scientists and inventors have a general goal in mind when they indulge themselves in an experiment.  Even if their discoveries do not directly match up with their original goals, they most likely had a general idea of where their experiments would take them.  Computer science is definitely a much more forced field with most programs predestined for certain outcomes, but it definitely has a certain similarity to the natural sciences.  In any experiment, the scientist most likely has a general idea of the outcomes they can come to in the end and their ideas are not as serendipitous as they originally seem.

  1. Paul Andre and Jaime Teevan. Retrieved May 9, 2016, from


The article, “Serendipity in Science,” by Barry Evans directly references several of the the greatest scientific discoveries that were a result of serendipity.  One of the references he makes is “Friedrich Kekule discovering the circular structure of benzene after dreaming of a snake swallowing its own tail.” (Evans pg. 1)  This example was used in the first book we read in class, Where Good Ideas Come From.  Kekule has a dream depicting a snake swallowing its own tail and it ended up being applicable to his science experiment and helped him develop an image of benzene.  In this situation, the serendipity is not necessarily spontaneous, but shown in a more foreshadowing way.  Kekule dreamed of an image that somehow proved to be relevant to his experiments and ended up being a crucial part in determining the structure of the molecule benzene.  Another example that is talked about in this article was by “A Raytheon scientist, Percy Spencer, who noticed that a candy bar in his pocket had melted while he was testing a magnetron for radar sets, giving birth to the microwave.” (Evans pg. 1)  In this situations, the resulting idea was indeed serendipitous.  Spencer had not set out to discover a microwave, but the results of his experiments led him to find a technology that is now used nation wide.  The findings of Spencer’s experiments now reside in the homes of most Americans and allow them to heat their food in a convenient and energy efficient way that would not be possible without serendipity.

  1. Barry Evans. Retrieved May 9, 2016, from

Recognition of Seredipity

The paper, “Chance and Serendipity in Science: Two Examples from My Own Career,” by Daniel Steinberg, argues the chances of an idea being realized through serendipity compared to on purpose.  Sometimes in science “happy accidents play important roles but, unhappily, receive little recognition in published papers.” (Steinberg pg. 1)  This confirms that accidents in science can potentially lead to some of the greatest discoveries.  However, the accidental process that leads to these discoveries is often not documented and credited as a serendipitous idea.  This paper is directly about experiments regarding phytanic acid storage in refsum syndrome.  The original experiments were to develop a treatment for refsum syndrome resulted in unacceptable side effects that led to the withdrawal of the drug from the market.  However, the information gathered about the drug were used to explain “why attennae were very much tuned into cholesterol biosynthesis at the time I first became aware that there was a such thing as phytanic acid.” (Steinberg pg. 1)  The accidental discover of phytanic acid was a much bigger deal than initially realized.  Scientists discovered that they were approaching the problem of refsum syndrome completely wrong.  They had to focus on the phytanic acid, something they didn’t even know existed, in order to get to the bottom of the more immediate problem that was facing them in the form of refsum syndrome.

  1. Daniel Steinberg. Retrieved May 9, 2016, from

Scotch Tape

In 1902, Richard Drew invented Scotch tape. As a college drop out, Drew worked for a sandpaper in Minnesota. Drew invented the first waterproof, see-through, pressure-sensitive tape, therefore supplying an attractive, moisture-proof way to seal food wrap for bakers, grocers, and meat packers. Drew sent a trial shipment of the new Scotch cellulose tape to a Chicago firm specializing in package printing for bakery products (1). The tape was a huge success, especially in the tough economy of the Great Depression people used the tape to mend household items.

Scotch tape can be viewed as serendipitous due to the nature of its discovery. Drew often delivered sandpaper samples to automotive shops and overheard the workers problems they were having with tape. He then got the idea to create a new tape that would create a seal so that the paint wouldn’t get through and yet also come off clean without leaving any sticky residue that ruined the paint finish (1). Clear cellophane became the new backing for the tape and is what we now know as Scotch Making tape.


  1. "The Invention of Scotch Tape." Today I Found Out. Feed Your Brain, 01 Dec. 2014. Web. 10 May 2016.


Milton Blake, an Australian chemist is credited with being the first to experiment with sun protection. He created a sunburn cream in his kitchen. Hamilton Laboratories started producing and selling the cream in the 1930’s. Then founder of L’oreal Cosmetics, Eugene Schueller also a chemist, created and marketed his cream in 1936. Neither of these were really all that effective. Some sources name Franz Greiter, an Austrian scientists as the true inventor of sunscreen. His Glacier Cream, introduced in 1938, was the first commercially viable sun protection cream (1). In the 1962, Franz Greiter introduced the concept for the Sun Protection Factor rating system-SPF. This has become the worldwide standard for measuring the effectiveness of sunscreen.

Working off all these invention, finally a Florida Physician named Benjamin Green, invented the first effective sunblock to protect the GI’s in the South Pacific during WWII from sunburn. It was called - Red Vet Pet because it was a red colored petroleum jelly like gel (1). He later improved on this formula and this new jasmine scented cream became know as Coppertone. In 1944,Coppertone suntan cream was the first commercially mass-produced sunscreen in the United States (1).

  1. "History of Sunscreens." Let's Talk Chemistry. The Human Touch of Chemistry, n.d.Web. 10 May 2016.


Felix Hoffmann, a German chemist, produced a stable form of acetylsalicylic acid, more commonly known as aspirin, in 1897. Hoffmann, was searching for something to relieve his father's arthritis. He studied French chemist Charles Gergardt's experiments and "rediscovered" acetylsalicylic acid--or aspirin, as we now know it. Aspirin's uses for heart patients came to light in 1948 when California physician Dr. Lawrence Craven recommended an aspirin a day to reduce heart attack risk, based on what he had observed in patients (1). Today, men and women take Aspirin daily to prevent heart attacks.

  1. Landau, Elizabeth. "From a Tree, a 'miracle' Called Aspirin." CNN. Cable News Network, 22 Dec. 2010. Web. 10 May 2016.

Handheld Calculator

During the early 1960s, Pat Haggerty discussed the possibility of a handheld calculator with Jack Kilby on a business trip. There were other priorities, but in 1964, Dean Toombs, formed a team consisting of Kilby, Jim Van Tassel, and Jerry Merryman to develop a calculator small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, yet powerful enough to perform basic math functions (1).

By December 1966, the team had a working model, and, within a year, Kilby, Van Tassel, and Merryman filed a patent application, which would be issued eight years later. The functional heart of the first miniature calculator was circuitry able to perform addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. It had a small keyboard with 18 keys and a visual output that displayed up to 12 decimal digits (1).

                              1.Henke, Gloria. "HISTORY OF HAND." HISTORY OF                                      HAND. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 May 2016. 

Compact Disk

The inventor of the compact disc (CD), is often disputed, as one individual did not invent every part of the compact disc. The most recoginized inventor is James Russell, who in 1965 was inspired as he sketched on paper a more ideal music recording system to replace vinyl records and Russell envisioned a system that could record and replay sounds without any physical contact between parts. However, by the time his invention had been further developed, it was actually a merger and adaptation of many different technologies including the laser (1960), digital recording (1967), and optical disc technology (1970s). Without these different components, the CD would not exist as it does today (1).

                                   1.Dalakov, Georgi. "History of Computers and                                              Computing, Birth of the Modern Computer, The                                          Bases of Digital Computers, Compact Disk of James                                    Russel." The Bases of Digital Computers, Compact                                          Disk of James Russel.N.p., n.d. Web. 10 May 2016.

Serendipitous discoveries tell the story of average scientists who stumble onto a breakthrough through luck alone; however it is often the steps leading up to the discovery that put the scientist in the right place and the right time. The scientists who discovered X-Rays and Penicillin, owe their discovery not to luck, but because of the work they were doing before the discovery that allowed them to witness the serendipity; Wilhelm Roentgen had already worked with cathode ray tubes for many years before his idea to cover it is black cardboard; and, Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin because he observed the effects that it had on his samples of staphylococcus that he had been studying. The phenomenon that is serendipity is remarkable, but it it is fueled by more than just luck; it is the inquisitive, questioning minds of scientists who lay the ground work for something special to happen that get their serendipitous moment.
Scientific Anthology: Serendipity

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