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The Power of Accidental Discoveries

Zonk posted about 8 years ago | from the eureka dept.

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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174 comments

stupid story (-1, Troll)

Adolf Hitroll (562418) | about 8 years ago | (#15553993)

and you're not even sorry about this...
try to publish NEWS, next time !

SLASHDOT (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15554000)

you are all a bunch of FAGGOTS.

do you HEAR ME, you REPULSIVE FAGGOTS?

NO DIGG.

Re:SLASHDOT (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15554611)

Are you coming on to me?

Number 10: Potato Chips (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15554007)

All hail the crispy goodness.

Re:Number 10: Potato Chips (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15554014)

Oh, great. The thing that keeps my 'Linux-belly' in place wasn't even made on purpose. DAMNIT. Seriously though, slinkys were accidental too! w00t for slinkys

Re:Number 10: Potato Chips (5, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#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 [amazon.com] and formerly a professional engineer.

Re:Number 10: Potato Chips (1)

theonetruekeebler (60888) | about 8 years ago | (#15554388)

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.

Re:Number 10: Potato Chips (4, Funny)

Firehed (942385) | about 8 years ago | (#15554061)

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.

Re:Number 10: Potato Chips (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15554840)

Hello Kokgobbler!

I see that you made an inane post. Is that because you yourself are a moron?

Firehed: "Gobble gobble gobble! Gobble gobble gobble....."

Alrighty then! I see you're enthralled and busy giving head to the /. crowd and are too busy to answer. That is okay. I'll be going now.

Firehed: "Gobble gobble gobble! Gobble gobble gobble....."

Recipes (5, Funny)

michaelhood (667393) | about 8 years ago | (#15554013)

Most of the best food combinations were discovered by accident too..

mmm.. peanut butter & bananas.

Like chocolate chip cookies... (3, Informative)

icefaerie (827772) | about 8 years ago | (#15554024)

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

Re:Recipes (1)

RsG (809189) | about 8 years ago | (#15554038)

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 (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15554093)

So you made pizza? Wow, what an invention, you should file a patent!

Re:Recipes (1)

RsG (809189) | about 8 years ago | (#15554144)

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)

Re:Recipes (1)

pakar (813627) | about 8 years ago | (#15554169)

With enough money - Prior-art does note matter.

Q: How many layers does it take to replace a lightbulb?
A: They never finish. They just keep thinking about how they can sue the lightbulb maker.

Or Reeses? (3, Funny)

Scarletdown (886459) | about 8 years ago | (#15554121)

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...

Re:Recipes (1)

Frightening (976489) | about 8 years ago | (#15554370)

Dude, you're selling panties on Slashdot. Does your boss know about this? :)

Re:Recipes (1)

3seas (184403) | about 8 years ago | (#15554399)

your forgot to add the mayonase...

Re:Recipes (1)

011011 (894467) | about 8 years ago | (#15554950)

Uhg, mayo and bananas... I always hated that combo. To each their own. I always wounders how honey was thought to go with chicken? Or for that matter, what crazy guy first fought bees off to get honey in the first place. THAT had to be painfull.

Re:Recipes (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15554413)

How about cow milk? That's got to be one of the best accidental discoveries of all time.

Re:Recipes (1)

Joebert (946227) | about 8 years ago | (#15554416)

That's not an accident, that's called being a broke ass student.

Re:Recipes (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15554476)

"You got your banana in my peanut butter!"

"You got your peanut butter on my banana!" ...the mind reels...

Re:Recipes (1)

Chanc_Gorkon (94133) | about 8 years ago | (#15554488)

Hey you got your peanut butter on m chocolate.....thus Reese Cips was born.....or maybe not! :D

Not so surprising. (1)

Eideewt (603267) | about 8 years ago | (#15554023)

If we already knew it, it wouldn't be a discovery.

Re:Not so surprising. (5, Interesting)

plasmacutter (901737) | about 8 years ago | (#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.

Re:Not so surprising. (1)

Eideewt (603267) | about 8 years ago | (#15554082)

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.

Re:Not so surprising. (2, Funny)

Walt Dismal (534799) | about 8 years ago | (#15554507)

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...?

Re:Not so surprising. (1)

residieu (577863) | about 8 years ago | (#15554631)

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 (5, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#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.

How to annoy google (+10 Informative) (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15554205)

How To Annoy Google
===================

Google is running some bot software and a specific kind of database
of links. If you know the alrogithms of these system you can cause
DoS, overload it, and noise it.

Noise: there are some very free content systems. Those who do not
like this freedom fight them by inserting noise (which is allowed because
the systems, are, as we said free). Such incidents are happening on
e-mail, napster forums, etc. Googlebots are sensitive to noise and
we can use this weapon against them.

1) Change your webpage often. Add new words:
      How does it work:
        Each time google visits a page, it adds it to its index and
        then revisits after a couple of days. If the content has not
        been modified, the revisit period is extended.
      What can you do:
        By modifying your page daily with a cron script you force the
        google bot to visit more recently. Also you noise the "web-history"
        which google collects (but does not provide as a service yet).

2) Add peculiar words and unknown words.
        That will mess up googles categories. Google may show off as
        something that finds 145,512,388,412 results in 0.023 seconds
        but in reallity google is using caches. You can verify that
        if you put something that has few search hits: google will
        report that there are 8 result pages found, but as you click
        `next` you'll only get to page 5. So these numbers are false.

        By adding random, irrelevant words, you mess up google's
        caching and categorizing server. It will also populate the
        link subtables. You can create new words by picking two words
        from `/usr/share/dict/words` and joining then. For example
        "lifeboatlackey", "treacherysprayer" and "Moonrealign".

3) Run a pseudo-web. If you have the ability to run a server you can
        fire up a webserver that generates random content. For example,
        download random posts from slashdot, generate page, add link
        to new pseudo-web page. That'll teach them!

4) Link to huge content. Download a book from the internet and have a
        script that picks paragraphs and makes a new book. Link to this
        in text form from your web page. Do this in PDF if you can!

5) Link to random pages. That'll harm google's "who links to whom" service.

6) Link to broken links. That'll make the google bots wander without a cause
      and will DoS google's "broken links" database. Make a page with 100000
      broken liks: the bots will follow!!

      The links should preferrably link to pages with names of words, for example
      http://microsoft.com/snoopy/hardware.html [microsoft.com]
      That rises the page-rank.

7) Link to slashdot. Google avoids slashdot!

8) Google words: Google links "words" with "document IDs". Common combinations
      of words (like "linux kernel"), form new words. So remember: every time you
      search google, please take some time to enter irrelevant words. Google keeps
      track of past searches and it sets up a dictionary of "words". But this
      system is based on the assumption that people search for interesting things
      and it is an "expertise system" that's slowly forming frequent search
      combinations (and the combinations are less than you expect!).

      Write a script that connects to google every 10 seconds and searches for
      "perl submarine simulator" and "hash table PDF printers" and "SCSI batmobile".
      Use these terms when you are replying in blog posts, or in forums. Use your
      imagination and every time you write something on the internet use words that
      are not directly relevant to the context.
      Make spelling mistakes.

9) system administrators: If you have an archive of a mailing list, write a perl
      script that adds a random word below the signature of every post.

And don't forget to synchronize on the 4th July hitweave. That's when lots of
people will modify their web pages. The effect will be something similar to
what happened when your school when on a trip to Germany and all the kids decided
to flush the toilets at 5:00am exactly: The water pipes of the hotel exploded.

Why? Google is good
===================

No its not. Google demonstrates how a company can _buy_ a good profile; and
it's pretty cheap! Google annoys you, you annoy google.

People from soviet russia may like google. Because the internet is a free land
you are free to not do this!

http://science.slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=188755 &cid=15554196 [slashdot.org]

Re:How to annoy google (+10 Informative) (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15554617)

Google is running some bot software and a specific kind of database
of links. If you know the alrogithms of these system you can cause
DoS, overload it, and noise it.

Errm... Why?

For that matter, why should I try to "annoy the MSN spider"?

Asimov (2, Interesting)

qurk (87195) | about 8 years ago | (#15554047)

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.

Re:Asimov (2, Funny)

Basehart (633304) | about 8 years ago | (#15554106)

Sounds like a fun way to pass the weekend :-)

Re:Asimov (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#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?

Asimov quote (5, Informative)

RoceKiller (699407) | about 8 years ago | (#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:Asimov quote (1)

Schemat1c (464768) | about 8 years ago | (#15554355)

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?


Of course there is also John Lennon's quote, "Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.", which seems to apply.

Re: Asimov quote (2, Funny)

Black Parrot (19622) | about 8 years ago | (#15554517)

> 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...'"

That's funny...

Re:Asimov quote (3, Funny)

pedalman (958492) | about 8 years ago | (#15554648)

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...
I must be in the wrong discipline. My discoveries are usually prefaced by, "Awwww, shit!!!!!!"

Re:Asimov quote (1)

Ignominious Cow Herd (540061) | about 8 years ago | (#15554778)

Or, "Oh no, not again!" (with regards to Agrajag)

We need patents! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15554058)

But we need patents, because otherwise there won't be any innovation!!1!!eleven!!!!!!

Oh wait, nevermind.

LSD (1)

Terminus32 (968892) | about 8 years ago | (#15554059)

You're forgetting Dr. Albert Hofmann, who gave the world LSD (the wonder drug) which he discovered by acciedent, & wrote a book about his famous bicycle 'trip', hehehe...

Re:LSD (4, Funny)

firemangreg (964292) | about 8 years ago | (#15554118)

No, it wasn't forgotten, it was in the first article. Oh wait, I read the article, I must be new here.

Re:LSD (1)

undii (965381) | about 8 years ago | (#15554204)

It wasn't really so much of an accident. Check out ergot (rye bread mould) to see what good ol' Hoffman was chasing (and found!) :)

Re:LSD (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15554284)

What are you, a hippie? Your myspace especially looks like it.

What're you doing here? you're too lazy/drugged to think and actually code or just be a geek.

Re:LSD (1)

LilGuy (150110) | about 8 years ago | (#15554682)

Well for starters if you were looking at his myspace then you probably don't belong here. As for your second point, if you don't do massive amounts of drugs, you don't work in the IT industry, so shut it.

Is this surprising? (4, Insightful)

munpfazy (694689) | about 8 years ago | (#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.

Re:Is this surprising? (1)

firemangreg (964292) | about 8 years ago | (#15554130)

How about Hofmann? If I recall correctly, he didn't go into it looking to create a highly popular hallucinogin. That's an accidental discovery in my book.

A fascinating quote (5, Funny)

DerekLyons (302214) | about 8 years ago | (#15554075)

A quote I once heard; Most scientific discoveries don't start with 'eureka', they start from 'hmm... thats odd'.

Re:A fascinating quote (1)

kadathseeker (937789) | about 8 years ago | (#15554120)

Asimov, and it's a little different.

Re:A fascinating quote (3, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#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:A fascinating quote (3, Informative)

platypuszero (825061) | about 8 years ago | (#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.

janting (2, Interesting)

nfarrell (127850) | about 8 years ago | (#15554076)

The first unintended discovery (can any true discovery truly be intentional?) that came to mind was that of jaunting [wikipedia.org] , 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.

Something is missing from the list (0, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15554080)

We should add the discovery of Intelligent Design as the biggest accident in the history of science.

Re: Something is missing from the list (1)

Black Parrot (19622) | about 8 years ago | (#15554511)

> We should add the discovery of Intelligent Design as the biggest accident in the history of science.

It's hardly a discovery when you make up a bunch of bullshit to rationalize an a priori belief.

Nice troll though, if a bit dated.

Re: Something is missing from the list (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15554880)

Man! That was a good one!

Imagine.. (0, Offtopic)

ms1234 (211056) | about 8 years ago | (#15554099)

...the power of your wife accidentally discovering you with another woman.

Re:Imagine.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15554151)

...the power of your wife accidentally discovering you with another woman.

You must be new here. ('another' woman!?)

Re:Imagine.. (1)

LilGuy (150110) | about 8 years ago | (#15554735)

the power of you discovering your wife while you discover another woman at the same time

Serendipity (2, Informative)

romit_icarus (613431) | about 8 years ago | (#15554102)

Isn't there already a word invented to describe this situation?

Words of discovery (0, Redundant)

bm_luethke (253362) | about 8 years ago | (#15554103)

Years ago I read in a text book that the words spoken at most major discoveries were not "Eureka! I've found it!" but "That's interesting?" or "Oops!".

This has been well known for years by anyone that has done research. It's dramatic stories that make it otherwise. Really, research is quite boring story wise. If your going to tell about how *something* was created a great drive to find "it" is better than accidental discovery.

Re:Words of discovery (1)

prockcore (543967) | about 8 years ago | (#15554202)

the words spoken at most major discoveries were not "Eureka! I've found it!"

They say that in the Department of Redundancy Department.

Fundemental discoveries are made by accident. (4, Interesting)

djl4570 (801529) | about 8 years ago | (#15554105)

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.

not really an accident... (2, Informative)

Vellmont (569020) | about 8 years ago | (#15554217)

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.

Re:Fundemental discoveries are made by accident. (1)

suffe (72090) | about 8 years ago | (#15554245)

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.

Re:Fundemental discoveries are made by accident. (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#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?

Re: Fundemental discoveries are made by accident. (1)

Black Parrot (19622) | about 8 years ago | (#15554506)

> 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.

Should discoveries like this be patentable? (2, Insightful)

Saven Marek (739395) | about 8 years ago | (#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.

Best quote (4, Funny)

lunartik (94926) | about 8 years ago | (#15554124)

We don't make mistakes, just happy little accidents.

- Bob Ross [wikiquote.org]

Re:Best quote (1)

adamlazz (975798) | about 8 years ago | (#15554438)

Kultzes are good sometimes :D

Gaunch (4, Funny)

MarkRose (820682) | about 8 years ago | (#15554128)

My guess is that the first accident induced invention was underwear.

Re:Gaunch (1)

theonetruekeebler (60888) | about 8 years ago | (#15554368)

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!"

There is a pattern to accidental discoveries! (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#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...

Actually, that's the nature of "discovery". (3, Insightful)

mazur (99215) | about 8 years ago | (#15554158)

If a discovery is not an accident, it's called an "invention", rather than a discovery. Or a "finding", depending on who's talking.

Just goes to show the benefits of blue sky thinkin (1)

99luftballon (838486) | about 8 years ago | (#15554170)

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.

Re:Just goes to show the benefits of blue sky thin (1)

Black Parrot (19622) | about 8 years ago | (#15554529)

> 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 offer someone a direct payoff (practical or political), so publically funded deep research gets cut. (Applied research is still pretty well funded, especially if it's a military application.)

Take the Supercollider. As the number of states being considered for its site decreased, so did the amount of support it got in Congress. The ratio of cost to "political profit" was too high.

The Power of Accidental Discoveries (1, Funny)

Fire Dragon (146616) | about 8 years ago | (#15554195)

And I tought they were talking politics, like this continent that got in the way to India.

Old News... (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15554209)

This was posted on Digg a while ago.

One acronym, three words. (0, Redundant)

Travy.b (815549) | about 8 years ago | (#15554233)


LSD: Lysergic acid diethylamide...

Sheesh.. I cant believe THAT wasnt given a mention. Your probably think I am
Being silly, but this drug had serious potential only to be wiped out prematurely
(from a legal standpoint at least).... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lsd [wikipedia.org]

Stainless Steel (0, Redundant)

benlwilson (983210) | about 8 years ago | (#15554239)

Stainless Steel should really have been in that list.

Rut Ro, I Rost contlor. (-1, Flamebait)

eBayDoug (764290) | about 8 years ago | (#15554243)

Asians are bad drivers.

Pasteur had a great quote: (4, Insightful)

Big Sean O (317186) | about 8 years ago | (#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?'.

Re:Pasteur had a great quote: (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15554701)

If they weren't sloppy, they wouldn't have contaminated the petri dish in the first place.

Flotation - For the separation of mixtures (4, Interesting)

itsthebin (725864) | about 8 years ago | (#15554344)

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.

X-Rays (1)

yobjob (942868) | about 8 years ago | (#15554357)

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 (3, Informative)

ichigo 2.0 (900288) | about 8 years ago | (#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.

no.9 (1)

abigsmurf (919188) | about 8 years ago | (#15554444)

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.

The beauty of a cheap containment bay door (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15554448)

Its like a jigsaw puzzle ,pieces need to be placed in the correct order .Since this universe is deterministic to only a certain degree and everything seems to be connected. One can look through the individual pieces and pick out patterns that will fit into the big picture.The reason we are not all psychics is because information has a speed limit and everything will decay ,even history has a decay rate, so predicting the future by using the past is only good to a small degree.I would not consider these discoveries as accidents in a deterministic universe.LG

I've seen co-workers make amazing discoveries (0)

sl4shd0rk (755837) | about 8 years ago | (#15554485)

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!"

AI breakthrough from tweaking parameters (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15554491)

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

Indirectly ... (1)

houghi (78078) | about 8 years ago | (#15554504)

... this means that the patenting system is a lottery.

How can I "prepare my mind" (Joseph Henry quote)? (3, Interesting)

mnemotronic (586021) | about 8 years ago | (#15554578)

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 [pbs.org] , couldn't have experimented on politicians instead of dogs.... Maybe a precident could have been set that

Re:How can I "prepare my mind" (Joseph Henry quote (1)

odyaws (943577) | about 8 years ago | (#15554688)

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.
You're absolutely right about egolessness, but not quite right about college professors. I had the privelage of doing my Ph.D. work at one of the world's greatest engineering institutions, and "egoless" and "open-minded" is an excellent way to describe the best researchers there (student and professor). They are highly confident, to be sure, but open to new views and being challenged. It's generally only the mediocre (and thus insecure) that have to hide behind titanic egos.

Pasteur quote and microwave cooking (2, Insightful)

drjzzz (150299) | about 8 years ago | (#15554632)

'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).

Re:Pasteur quote and microwave cooking (1)

belg4mit (152620) | about 8 years ago | (#15554946)

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.

Perspectives (3, Funny)

ScrewMaster (602015) | about 8 years ago | (#15554642)

Scientist: "The power of accidental discoveries."

Creationist: "The power of the Dark Side."

interesting to see noted her but not surprising... (1)

BRUTICUS (325520) | about 8 years ago | (#15554655)

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!

The Far Side (2, Funny)

shawn443 (882648) | about 8 years ago | (#15554753)

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.

You can't make brandy this way. (3, Insightful)

Phanatic1a (413374) | about 8 years ago | (#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.

Connections and The Day the Universe Changed? (1)

plorqk (134858) | about 8 years ago | (#15554876)

Isn't a lot of accidental discovery in these series?

Not exactly by accident (1)

tvoglou (916088) | about 8 years ago | (#15554969)

It takes a trained and bright mind to be able to understand the unexpected or "accidental" in order to make the discovery. I bet lots of people may have faced "accidents" that lead to a discovery but just moved by unable to understand what just happened.

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