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The Power of Accidental Discoveries 174

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 Anonymous Coward
    All hail the crispy goodness.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday June 17, 2006 @03:56AM (#15554041)

      The accidental discovery of the potato chip was important only in that ultimately, when people searched for a way to improve the thin and lackluster potato chip of the masses, the miracle of Pringles was born. I don't know how people could just eat those greasy things that come in a bag for several decades.

      One item of trivia that might amuse fans of science fiction is that the machine responsible for Pringles was invented by Gene Wolfe, author of the masterpiece tetralogy The Book of the New Sun [] and formerly a professional engineer.

      • 10. Potato chips
        Chef George Crum concocted the perfect sandwich complement in 1853 when - to spite a customer who complained that his fries were cut too thick - he sliced a potato paper-thin and fried it to a crisp. Needless to say, the diner couldn't eat just one.
        It would appear that many great inventions have been projects to make somebody shut the hell up. This puts potato chips are on the same list as the Total Perspective Vortex.
      • For the general reference, see this Wiki article: []

        But I also have a personal recollection. When in University, I was an engineering student at a major US "ivy league" school. Naturally we had people from industry who would visit on occasion and discuss the ways in which engineering were used in businesses (so as to appear attractive to as as potential career choices for employment). One such presentation was in 1974 or 1975 on Pringles from a guy from Procter & Gam
      • Lol, I'm actually reading Gene Wolfe right now.

        One of the worst written books I've ever read, too (the Knight). I left it at the restaurant this afternoon, and only reluctantly went back to get it.

        In all honesty, all breakthroughs almost have to be by definition discoveries of mistakes. Humans are great pattern recognization engines, but you either have to have a mistake (penicillin) or be crazy (Tesla) to break out of the mold, so to speak, and discover/create something radically new.
    • by Firehed ( 942385 ) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @04:05AM (#15554061) Homepage
      Sheer irony that their inventor was named Crum. You can't eat just one, but you never seem to be able to eat the whole thing either. How cruel.
  • Recipes (Score:5, Funny)

    by michaelhood ( 667393 ) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @03:43AM (#15554013)
    Most of the best food combinations were discovered by accident too..

    mmm.. peanut butter & bananas.
    • Yum. :) If I recall correctly, chocolate chip cookies were invented in the late 30s who ran out of bakers' chocolate to make chocolate cookies, and instead added now-standard semi-sweet chocolate chips, assuming they'd melt. They didn't, and the chocolate chip cookie was born. :D
    • Actually, I think the best food combos are discovered by neccesity. If all you have left is peanut butter, bread and bananas, then hey, ya might as well try...

      I did something like this not so long ago. We had mushrooms (the regular kind - not the hallucenogenic ones), and needed to use them up. I fried them with garlic and onions, put them on bagels, added chedar, and then toasted the lot. It actually worked pretty good...
      • Re:Recipes (Score:2, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward
        So you made pizza? Wow, what an invention, you should file a patent!
        • I think there might be prior art :-)

          Anyway, yes it was bread/toppings/cheese, but it was also cobbled together from stuff that I didn't know would mix well. That was the point. And I suck at all things cooking related, so figuring out how to use up leftovers without either eating them straight (not so good for mushrooms) or mixing them into something like ramen, omlets or spagheti sauce is kinda cool.

          (Side note: The plain bagels/cheese approach is good by itself. Anything else is optional)
    • Or Reeses? (Score:4, Funny)

      by Scarletdown ( 886459 ) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @04:46AM (#15554121) Journal
      A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away...

      Scene : Death Star Troops' day room as they are approaching Yavin.

      TIE Fighter pilot-1 : Mmmmm... Chocolate.
      TIE Fighter pilot-2 : Mmmmm... Peanut butter

      Pilot-1 bumps into Pilot-2

      Pilot-2 : Hey! You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!
      Pilot-1 : You got your peanut butter on my chocolate!

      Both taste the new combo. "It's delicious!"

      Pilot-1 : You know who would like this? Governor Tarkin.
      Pilot-2 : Yeah. He likes chocolate, and he likes peanut butter.
      Pilot-1 : Let's bring him some.

      Alarm klaxons go off and all fighter pilots are ordered to their ships.

      Pilot-2 : As soon as the battle's over.

      And so the galaxy would have to wait...

    • Dude, you're selling panties on Slashdot. Does your boss know about this? :)
    • your forgot to add the mayonase...
    • That's not an accident, that's called being a broke ass student.
    • Hey you got your peanut butter on m chocolate.....thus Reese Cips was born.....or maybe not! :D
  • If we already knew it, it wouldn't be a discovery.
    • by plasmacutter ( 901737 ) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @03:57AM (#15554045)
      there is a big difference between accidental and intentionally sought discovery though.

      for instance.. when the periodic table was first created, it was surmised there were many elements which were to be discovered.. loe and behold they were eventually, but a lot of the later ones had to be lab created. Had the periodic table not been produced we might not have been interested in doing so.

      What I don't get is why half the polymers we use dont end up on that list linked in but viagra does, oh wait yes i do ; ).. but i mean several polymers (the names of which i can't recall off the top of my head) were discovered as a biproduct of petrol purification experiments.
      • Yes, I know, but what I mean is that I don't find it surprising that we often find things we haven't predicted when investigating something that's not so well known.
      • This is so true. I can't begin to count the number of times I've made an accidental discovery in my shorts that I was not intentionally seeking. Ooops. Thinking out loud again. When will I learn...?
      • Because these stories aren't so much about important accidental discoveries. But interesting accidental discoveries. They wouldn't draw as much interest with
        1. Polyethylene - Discovered during petrol purification. Now used everwhere
        2. Polypropylene - Discovered during petrol purification. Now used everywhere
        3. ...
  • Inkjet printers (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday June 17, 2006 @03:50AM (#15554025)
    I remember hearing about how Canon discovered inkjet technology when a lab worker accidentally touched an ink-filled syringe with a soldering iron. This idea then became the basis for their bubblejet technology, albeit on a much smaller scale. I've heard this a few times now and have no idea whether it's myth or a true story.
  • Asimov (Score:2, Interesting)

    by qurk ( 87195 )
    Asimov has a great essay on the topic of accidental discoveries, at least one. I'll try to find which of his books contained it.
  • 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 DerekLyons ( 302214 ) <> on Saturday June 17, 2006 @04:15AM (#15554075) Homepage
    A quote I once heard; Most scientific discoveries don't start with 'eureka', they start from 'hmm... thats odd'.
    • Asimov, and it's a little different.
      • by Anonymous Coward
        The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny...'
        Isaac Asimov []

    • Lord Rutherford was firing electrons at a sheet of gold foil and had no idea that the nucleus existed. There's a great quote from him about the amazement of discovery of the atomic nucleus. He was just playin with the ol' electron gun trying to prove that electrons were small enough to pass through matter or something like that and then a few of the electrons bounced back at him. He then correctly deduced the nucleus of the atom. I would say thats a pretty important discovery by accident.
      • Lord Rutherford was firing electrons at a sheet of gold foil and had no idea that the nucleus existed.

        Actually, it was Geiger and Marsden (a post-doc and a student), not Rutherford, who performed the experiment. Rutherford just interpreted the unusual results (and - having regularly watched the head of my lab take credit for the insights of his underlings - one can't help wondering how much unacknowledged input Geiger and Marsden had into that interpretation ... :)

  • janting (Score:2, Interesting)

    by nfarrell ( 127850 )
    The first unintended discovery (can any true discovery truly be intentional?) that came to mind was that of jaunting [], named after its creator.

    My description would pale in comparison to the original, so I won't try. Suffice to say, read this book, be amazed, then look when it was written and be doubly amazed.
  • Serendipity (Score:3, Informative)

    by romit_icarus ( 613431 ) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @04:34AM (#15554102) Journal
    Isn't there already a word invented to describe this situation?
  • by djl4570 ( 801529 ) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @04:35AM (#15554105) Journal
    Fundamental discoveries are made by accident. One of the best examples of this was Michaelson and Morley's interferometer that they used to measure the speed of light in different directions. A well designed experiment that very accurately measured the speed of light. The experiment objective was to determine the direction through which earth was passing though the "ether", at the time a theoretical media that supported the wave propagation of light. As such the experiment failed because the speed of light was the same regardless of the orientation of the interferometer. A few years later Einstein re-interpreted the results and declared that there was no ether and that the speed of light was a constant. There was nothing wrong with the original experiment, just the interpretation of the result. It was a discovery that changed our understanding of the universe. Years ago I opened a fortune cookie that said "Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want." The universe was telling me to look for a learning opportunities whenever I didn't get an expected result.
    • I guess I wouldn't call that an accident. Michaelson-Morley expected to confirm the existance of the aether, but calling the experiment an accident isn't really accurate. It was certainly unexpected, but they definitely were trying to measure the earths movement through the aether.
    • Yes, I'm sure all those people like Newton and Einstein would agree with you. As the story goes, one day when Einstein was sitting under an orange tree a fruit fell on his head. This in turn led to him discovering the theory of relativity burried under the tree.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday June 17, 2006 @07:09AM (#15554286)
      This history is false. Michaelson and Morley devised an experiment to measure the presumed qualities of the static ether, which the Earth was presumed to move through. They found no evidence for its existence, and produced the finding that it therefore did not exist.

      "The interpretation of these results is that there is no displacement of the interference bands. ... The result of the hypothesis of a stationary ether is thus shown to be incorrect." (A. A. Michelson, Am. J. Sci, 122, 120 (1881))

      The experiment was therefore a success. It was interpreted correctly, and an appropriate conclusion was drawn from it. Einstein had nothing whatsoever to do with it. Unless you have a limited capacity for rational thought, and believe that the only scientist of any note was Einstein, so he must be involved in every story you tell.

      Interestingly, I have often found that explaining that Einstein was not born in America, and only took American citizenship when he was no longer producing any useful physics often produces a sudden re-evaluation of his scientific importance to a more appropriate level. Why don't you read original research documents instead of making up history in the Hollywood style?

      • > The experiment was therefore a success. It was interpreted correctly, and an appropriate conclusion was drawn from it. Einstein had nothing whatsoever to do with it.

        However, if I'm not mistaken, the result of the experiment set up a problem which Einstein solved by the introduction of general relativity.
      • Interestingly, I have often found that explaining that Einstein was not born in America, and only took American citizenship when he was no longer producing any useful physics often produces a sudden re-evaluation of his scientific importance to a more appropriate level.

        So you prefer a misleading of your own regarding Einstein, eh?
        I seriously doubt that Einstein sat down one day and thought or said "I am no longer producing any useful physics, it is finally time to become an American citizen." yet the way

  • Best quote (Score:5, Funny)

    by lunartik ( 94926 ) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @04:48AM (#15554124) Homepage Journal
    We don't make mistakes, just happy little accidents.

    - Bob Ross []
  • Gaunch (Score:5, Funny)

    by MarkRose ( 820682 ) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @04:49AM (#15554128) Homepage
    My guess is that the first accident induced invention was underwear.
    • More likely the first invention-induced accident was in underwear. Like the guy who invented mountain biking? He was probably trying to invent a better set of brakes, messed that up, went off the road and ended up going on a very fast ride through the woods. His Fruit-of-the-Looms have a special place of honor in the Extreme Sports Hall of Fame.

      And in this case, his famous words of discovery were not "Eureka!" but "Oh Shit Oh Shit Oh Shit I'm Gonna Dieeeeeee!"

  • 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.
  • Too much of research these days is too tightly locked down; specific results must be achievable and there's no wiggle room. While this might make sense from an economists point of view but makes for less innovation. I'm surprised none of the articles mentioned the electron. Totally useless discovery for 20 years but we wouldn't be reading Slashdot without it.
    • > Too much of research these days is too tightly locked down; specific results must be achievable and there's no wiggle room. While this might make sense from an economists point of view but makes for less innovation.

      In the USA there has become a great focus on short-term results, with a resulting unwillingness to invest in longer-term results. Businesses want to optimize the next quarterly report; too much research erodes reportable profits. The Federal govenment wants to reduce spending that doesn't of
  • And I tought they were talking politics, like this continent that got in the way to India.
  • 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 itsthebin ( 725864 ) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @07:52AM (#15554344) Homepage
    from Wikipedia

    [i]is a method for the separation of mixtures. Flotation is a separation technique used widely in the minerals industry, for paper, de-inking, and water treatment amongst others. It can also be used in the food and coal industries. The technique relies upon differences in the surface properties of different particles to separate them. The particles that are to be floated are rendered hydrophobic by the addition of the appropriate chemicals. Air is then bubbled through the mixture and the desired particles become attached to the small air bubbles and move to the surface where they accumulate as a froth and are collected, or if the non-desired particles float to the surface they are collected and discarded. The flotation process was developed on a commercial scale early in the 20th century at Broken Hill in Australia and is widely used for processing of sulphide minerals (copper, lead, zinc, nickel, cobalt etc...).[/i]

    The anecdotal story I heard was the chief metalurgists wife was washing his work clothes and commented on the shiny qualities of the bubbles.

  • Several 19th-century scientists toyed with the penetrating rays emitted when electrons strike a metal target. But the x-ray wasn't discovered until 1895, when German egghead Wilhelm Röntgen tried sticking various objects in front of the radiation - and saw the bones of his hand projected on a wall.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, he died of cancer.
    • Re:X-Rays (Score:4, Informative)

      by ichigo 2.0 ( 900288 ) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @09:51AM (#15554580)
      He died at the age of 78, so it is in fact suprising that he lived that long and didn't die from something else before that. And, as the wikipedia article [] points out:

      Röntgen died in 1923 of carcinoma of the bowel. It is not believed his carcinoma was a result of his work with ionizing radiation because his investigations were only for a short time and he was one of the few pioneers in the field who used protective lead shields routinely.

      While a lot of people like to feel clever by deducing that the inventor of the x-ray died from cancer because overexposing himself to it, it just isn't true.
  • no.9 is not an accident. That plant deliberately uses it's stickyness to transport its seeds. The scientist deliberately set out to replicate its effects. Pretty much every aspect of its invention is deliberate.
  • In an instant of revelation that can only be best described as something Albert Einstein may have experienced: "Hey look!... My ass!... A hole in the ground!.. Eureka!"
  • by Anonymous Coward

    A breakthrough in artificial intelligence [] occurred on 7 June 2006 as a result of tweaking some parameters in open-source AI software.

  • ... this means that the patenting system is a lottery.
  • I seems that one way to encourage new discoveries is to learn how to cultivate or induce a state of mind or being that will make oneself more receptive to tangential thinking - by that I mean that moment where one takes a step back and "the light comes on" about something completely unrelated to the current course of research or study. This, IMHO, would be be open-mindedness, or egolessness. Too bad a massive ego is a prerequisite for tenured college professorship - I guess they won't be teaching how to do it.

    In an alternate train of thought, it's too bad Charles Robert Richet, the French physiologist mentioned in the article [], couldn't have experimented on politicians instead of dogs.... Maybe a precident could have been set that

  • '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 [] 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 r

    • That's an interesting "story", particularly that you'd consider a GI a well prepared
      mind. The seemingly more common version is that Percy Spencer, working at Raytheon
      noticed that his candy bar got warm and soft whilst working with a magentron.
  • by ScrewMaster ( 602015 ) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @10:17AM (#15554642)
    Scientist: "The power of accidental discoveries."

    Creationist: "The power of the Dark Side."
  • Life itself would appear to be accidental. The evolution of man was also a mainly built on random mutations, read: accidental. Technology is a cog in our evolution so it would only make sense that it worked the same way. Many of the technologies that comprise a space shuttle also were made up of accidental technologies. Its why in life I myself try and do things differently, no accidental life changing epiphanies yet but its worth it to try!
  • by shawn443 ( 882648 )
    Reminds me of that cartoon where the caveman inventor had just got done inventing the wheel and proceeded to strap himself on top for a test drive.
  • 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.
    • Disregarding the article's bad wording, I shudder to think of the taste of such 'reconstituted wine'. There's a lot more than H2O left from the distillation of wine. At least that's what my buddies tell me, I wouldn't know from first hand experience :-P
  • Often what happens is that someone unfamiliar with an established, accepted process discovers something that was seemingly unnoticed before.

    Of course, such a situation causes quite a bit of disruption in the status quo and can make news until the idea guy learns a bit more.

    I've seen this happen (and been guilty of it myself). Brilliant conceptual ideas almost always come from people who don't know the complicated details. If there is a lot of ego or money invested in a non-workable idea, that's when mar
  • Penicillin (Score:3, Informative)

    by ChrisMaple ( 607946 ) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @12:24PM (#15555059)
    Page 3 of the June 15, 2006 issue of Investors Business Daily neatly refutes the myth that the discovery of penicillin was an accident or the result of sloppiness.

    "A researcher in bacteriology, Fleming didn't throw anything away for at least two weeks after he'd worked on it. Instead, he let it sit on his desk for a while, to see whether there was any change in his thinking or in the projects themselves before he scrapped anything."

    His discovery was the result of a deliberate, systematic practice.

  • The velcro and vulcanized rubber examples don't really sound like accidents to me. According to the article, those came as a result of some period of directed effort.
  • A much better collection of accidental discoveries can be found in "Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science" by
    Royston M. Roberts. Just check out the table of contents on Amazon [].
  • Safety glass, the kind that doesn't splinter on impact, is everywhere these days,

    No, actually it isn't. You can hardly find it anywhere, these days. I really wish I could...

    In cars, safety glass has been completely replaced by "tempered" glass. Now, I don't mind that for the side windows, mirrors, and perhaps the rear window, but it's TERRIBLE windsheild material.

    If you've ever had your windsheild get a tiny nick (from a small pebble) which slowly grew into a gigantic crack that spreads across the whole

    • If you've ever had your windsheild get a tiny nick (from a small pebble) which slowly grew into a gigantic crack that spreads across the whole pane, you've experienced the wonders of tempered glass. I think you're thinking of annealed glass. Tempered glass doesn't propogate single cracks, it shatters into tiny pieces, as described here [].
      • I think you're thinking of annealed glass. Tempered glass doesn't propogate single cracks, it shatters into tiny pieces, as described here

        No. It says "TEMPERED SAFETY GLASS" on the pane, in no uncertain terms.

        Tempered glass:

        Due to the balanced stresses in the glass, damage to the glass will eventually result in the glass shattering into thumbnail sized pieces.

        Shattering may not happen when the damage originally occurs and can be triggered by a minor stress like heat or small impact that would not normally

  • I would like to have lived in the era of Edison and Menlo Park.

    What an amazing time period.

    Edison was a determined genius and a good administrator. His inventions (film, audio, electricity, light bulbs - just 3 out of 1200) are still a STAPLE in western society.

    Perhaps there will be more like him in the near future. He was a true one-man revolution.
    • Actually... (Score:3, Interesting)

      by cr0sh ( 43134 )
      Edison was a determined genius and a good administrator. His inventions (film, audio, electricity, light bulbs - just 3 out of 1200) are still a STAPLE in western society.

      Edison was a shrewd businessman and marketer, as well. He still has a lot of people fooled, including you, apparently.

      Film? I assume by this you mean "motion pictures", but Edison was not the "inventor" of such technology, he merely managed to package it up into a nice assembly. Many, many people contributed toward the progress of motion p

  • Teflon (Score:2, Interesting)

    by IceFoot ( 256699 )
    TFA doesn't mention one of the more interesting accidental (or serendipitous) discoveries, Teflon.

    One day in his chemistry lab, Dr. Roy J. Plunkett went to open a tank of gaseous tetrafluoroethylene, but no gas came out. Many lab workers, even scientists, would simply replace the tank with a full one. But not Plunkett! He weighed the tank and mysteriously, it still weighed the same as when it was full of gas! Evidently the gas had *not* leaked out.

    He investigated by actually sawing the gas tank open. In
  • ...or they wouldn't see it for what it is.

    One of the basic rules of the Universe is that you can't understand the answer unless you understand the question and *most* of the answer to start with. Without underlying knowledge, it won't work. For example, the ancient greeks had the idea that matter was made up of individual items called atoms. Very nearly right, but it took a couple of thousand years before the idea came up again.

    Example 1 (silly): An AMD64 drops through a wormhole/ST rift/whatever and la
  • Funny, but the one that I thought of wasn't on the lists I looked at. Disulfiram [] was discovered as an "off label" treatment to disuade alcoholics from drinking.

    Velcro should not be on the lists. That was an intentional product creation.

"I shall expect a chemical cure for psychopathic behavior by 10 A.M. tomorrow, or I'll have your guts for spaghetti." -- a comic panel by Cotham