Spotting a galaxy, and other discoveries that were total accidents

Astrophysicist Patrick Treuthardt wasn’t looking for a rare galaxy. But while gazing at a cluster of galaxies, he happened to notice a small, unobtrusive speck. The speck turned out to be PGC 10000714, an elliptical galaxy surrounded by two rings of stars. It’s one of the rarest types of galaxies in the universe and Treuthardt found it by chance. 

A lot of major scientific discoveries can happen by accident, failure or just plain dumb luck. 

Take for example, Corn Flakes. In 1984, Will Keith Kellogg forgot to put away a pot of boiled wheat. The wheat sat on the stovetop and dried out. Kellogg liked the crunchy, flaky result and replaced the wheat with corn. He flattened it with rollers, and the Corn Flake was born. 

Another mistake-turned-miraculous discovery is synthetic dye. We can thank chemistry student William Perkins for that, and for the brightly-colored clothing we wear. In 1856, he was experimenting with quinine, a chemical used for malaria treatment. While cleaning up a failed experiment, Perkins noticed bright purple spots in the solution. He patented the color and called it “mauve.” The fashion industry has never been the same. 

Engineer Karl Jansky was trying to figure out what was creating the static noises interfering with telephone lines. Jansky identified thunderstorms as one of the culprits, but couldn’t figure out the origin of a steady, hissing noise. After a few months of observation, Jansky guessed that the noises were coming from celestial bodies in outer space. His 1932 discovery led to radio astronomy, which uses radio waves to better understand the universe. 

Then there are mistakes that have helped improve products we use everyday. Ever wondered why windshields don’t shower glass everywhere when they break? In 1903, French scientist Edouard Benedictus accidentally dropped a glass flask filled with liquid plastic. The flask broke, but didn’t shatter. So, Benedictus invented safety glass, which is now used for windshields, windows and goggles. 

But the classic example of accidental discovery is penicillin. Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillium when he was experimenting with the common staphylococcal bacteria, or staph. He left petri dishes on the window sill and returned from vacation to find them molding. But the mold had killed the bacteria. Fleming named the “mold juice” penicillin, which became the first antibiotic.

—Frank Graff 

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci Tech Now North Carolina, a weekly science series that airs Tuesdays on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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