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The Power of Accidental Discoveries 174

Posted by Zonk
from the eureka dept.
schmiddy writes "An article from Wired mentions the surprising number of discoveries that have been made entirely by accident. In an older article, The Discovery Channel's site points out a different subset of inventions that happened by accident. A much older article from PBS goes into more depth on the subject of accidental discoveries, and gives a great quote from physicist Joseph Henry: 'The seeds of great discoveries are constantly floating around us, but they only take root in minds well prepared to receive them.'"
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The Power of Accidental Discoveries

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  • by munpfazy (694689) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @04:13AM (#15554074)
    It's no surprise that a lot of discoveries happen by accident. After all, that's more or less why they're called "discoveries," rather than "confirmations."

    Sure, there are lots of non-accidental discoveries as well: You test a thousand samples looking a specific enzyme and discover that one of them has it. You take spectra over the course of months for a bunch of stars likely to have planets, analyze them looking for planets, and you discover that one of them has planets. You try to find a quantitative model to explain a bunch of specific data, and you end up finding one.

    But most of the time you discover something really new either by getting lucky and stumbling across it or by looking at the world with an new instrument and figuring out the results. Either way, you can't know what it is you're looking for until you've found it.

    Unfortunately, most of the examples cited by the articles aren't really discoveries at all. They're inventions. And some aren't really accidental. (The exception is the Nova site, which provides a thorough and engaging look at people expecting to find one thing and finding something else entirely.)

    Velcro wasn't an accidental discovery, even according to the description in the article itself. A man picked up a natural object and observed it, noticed a particularly appealing characteristic, and then spent years struggling to reproduce it in a practical commercial product. That's about as non-accidental as you can get. It's a textbook (well, children's book) version of engineering, with no surprises anywhere in sight.
  • by Saven Marek (739395) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @04:39AM (#15554112)
    I wonder if in an ideal world discoveries made by accident should be patentable?

    The way I see it if you put effort and invest a lot of time and money into something, you can patent it and deserve a small amount of exclusivity to your invention in order to pay you back for all you invested. This of course does not include software patents.

    But if something is discovered so easily by accident by someone, they have not invested any time or money. It has just come to them by luck, and I think then that should be general knowledge to be used for the good of humans in general, and not kept to one person who has a monopoly on their luck.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday June 17, 2006 @05:06AM (#15554147)
    "Accidental discoveries" are almost always made by outstanding people.

    Alexander Fleming got his petri dishes accidentally ruined by mould. Fleming realised that the mould's antibacterial property could be useful and eventually another scientist succeeded in producing penicillin.

    What would your average scientist have done in the same circumstances? Cursed his/her luck and thrown away the dish, most likely...
  • by mazur (99215) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @05:16AM (#15554158) Homepage
    If a discovery is not an accident, it's called an "invention", rather than a discovery. Or a "finding", depending on who's talking.
  • by Big Sean O (317186) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @07:04AM (#15554276)
    Chance favors the prepared mind.

    Both homogenation and pennicillin were discovered when something expected _didn't_ happen. If they were sloppy, they'd never be able to figure out 'what just happened?'.
  • by drjzzz (150299) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @10:12AM (#15554632) Homepage Journal
    'The seeds of great discoveries are constantly floating around us, but they only take root in minds well prepared to receive them.'"

    Louis Pasteur's dictum is later: "Chance favors the prepared mind."

    The original quote [wikiquote.org] is less pithy: "Dans les champs de l'observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés" (In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind).

    Using microwaves to heat food was supposedly discovered when a candy bar melted in the pocket of a soldier guarding a radar station in the arctic. (No mention of what happened to the soldier's brain... a well prepared mind?) Maybe it doesn't belong on the list with penicillin (neither does viagra).
  • by Phanatic1a (413374) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @11:18AM (#15554815)
    Medieval wine merchants used to boil the H20 out of wine so their delicate cargo would keep better and take up less space at sea. Before long, some intrepid soul - our money's on a sailor - decided to bypass the reconstitution stage, and brandy was born. Pass the Courvoisier!


    Um...alcohol boils at a *lower* temperature than water does. If you "boil the H2O" out of wine, the alcohol's gone long before the H2O is.

"Only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core." -- Hannah Arendt.

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