Accidental Laboratory Discoveries
By Dr Rizwana Rahim
Chicago, IL

Serendipity has always had a major part of science. What you discover is not always what you were looking for, and what you thought was a failure may turn out to be an accidental discovery that may not necessarily stay within the context it was intended to remain. The November issue of ‘Discover’ magazine listed a few:
1. In the 9th century, Chinese alchemist were trying to synthesize an ‘elixir of immortality’ by mixing salt-peter, sulfur, realgar and dried honey. The result was gun-powder.
2. In 1675, a German scientist, Hennig Brand, stored 50 buckets of urine in his cellar for a few months, hoping it’d turn into gold. What he found instead was a waxy, glowing substance that spontaneously burst into flames. What he had on his hand was phosphorus.
Using this knowledge, soldiers supplied urine in large quantities till 1750s. This led the Swedish chemist, Carl Scheele, to produce phosphorus on an industrial scale. In the process, he managed to discover 8 other elements, including chlorine, oxygen and nitrogen, along with compounds like ammonia, glycerin and prussic acid.
Scheele was found dead in his lab. He was just 43, and the cause of his death may have been his habit of tasting the compounds he produced.
3. In 1938, DuPont chemist Roy Plunkett opened a bad canister of Tetrafluoroethylene gas, and found a white powder, nearly friction-free. He named it Teflon. A Teflon ingredient, perflouro-octanoic acid, in the blood of about 95% of Americans, and in 2005, EPA determined it is a “likely carcinogen” in humans.
4. After a 1997 drug trial in the Welsh mining town, Merthyr Tydfill, male volunteers in the trial reported that sildenafil citrate did nothing for their angina, but it did have some other effects. That drug is now known as Viagra.
5. In 1943, a Swiss chemist (Albert Hoffman) accidentally absorbed tiny amounts of lysergic acid through his fingertips and experienced “dizziness – visual distortions and [a] desire to laugh.” That was LSD. Hoffmann turned 100 last January.
6. In 1965, astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson suspected that the hissing sound in their instruments at Bell Laboratories may be caused by the pigeon droppings on their radio antenna. They scrubbed the material off, but the hissing persisted. That noise turned out to be the micro-wave echo of what we know as the Big Bang that created our Universe.
7. In the interstellar cloud of gas astronomers found organic molecules in the center of the Milky Way: 8 new organics (6-8 atoms each) in the last 2 years. One compound, acetamide, is of particular importance because it has a peptide-bond, crucial between 2 amino acids. This supports the theory that chemical precursors of life may have been first formed in deep space. So far, about 125 smaller carbon- based molecules have been identified in the space.
Jan M. Hollis ( Goddard Space Flight Center ) had said earlier: “No one has ever found an amino acid in space… [and] I’ve actually written several papers about not finding them.”
In the Miller-Urey experiments in 1950s, an electric current passed through a flask containing suspected elements of primitive Earth did produce a rich soup of amino acids.
8. Some other products of the so-called blunders are: Kevlar, cellophane, Post-It notes, photographs and phonographs.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.