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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 icefaerie ( 827772 ) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @03:50AM (#15554024) Homepage
    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
  • 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 Anonymous Coward on Saturday June 17, 2006 @05:29AM (#15554176)
    The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny...'
    Isaac Asimov [brainyquote.com]

  • Re:Asimov (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday June 17, 2006 @05:33AM (#15554185)
    His Chronology of Science & Discovery [amazon.com] covers most important scientific breakthroughs and details the situation surrounding their discoveries. Were you thinking of that?
  • by Vellmont ( 569020 ) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @06:06AM (#15554217) Homepage
    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.
  • 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?

  • Asimov quote (Score:5, Informative)

    by RoceKiller ( 699407 ) * <slashdot.rocekiller@dk> on Saturday June 17, 2006 @07:22AM (#15554294)
    A quote from Asimov on the subject:

    "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but 'That's funny...'"

    Is that what you where remembering?
  • 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 [wikipedia.org] 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.
  • by platypuszero ( 825061 ) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @10:26AM (#15554662)
    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.
  • 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.

  • Re:Inkjet printers (Score:2, Informative)

    by Tablizer ( 95088 ) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @04:19PM (#15555812) Journal
    Huh, I always thought that inkjet technology was discovered by HP

    IIRC, it was a combination of discoveries between Cannon and HP. They each perfected different parts of the technology and agreed to cooperate and share patents.

    TV may have progressed faster if inventors has cooperated like this because it took multiple parts to get it to work practically. Instead it was delayed by patent fights.

Forty two.