April 21, 2018

5 Chance Discoveries That Saved The World

“One sometimes finds what one is not looking for. When I woke up just after dawn on Sept. 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did.” – Alexander Fleming.

 “Trust me, I’m a Scientist”; a famous quote used by many professions to stamp their credibility on claims. But who would not trust a scientist after all the amazing discoveries and advancements science has contributed to the world today. Little did you know that some the world’s most important discoveries came about by chance?

1.     From mould to medicine: Penicillin

Antibiotics have saved the lives of many today all thanks to science gone wrong. Penicillin was first discovered in 1928 by a Scottish researcher by name Alexander Fleming whiles working with the Influenza virus.  He left a culture plate of staphylococcus open by mistake for two weeks whiles he went on holiday only to return to an unusual observation. He noticed the plate had been infected and mold was growing on it. However there was a ring of inhibited bacteria growth around the mould which he concluded was due to a substance being secreted by the mould that was killing off the staphylococcus on the plate. He tested the mould against several kinds of bacteria and found that the mould either stopped or slowed down bacteria growth. He named it ‘penicillin’ as the mould came from the genus Penicillium.  

Clear areas show where bacteria growth has been prevented by secretions from mould in the centres

Years later this was further developed into becoming medical penicillin which is used today. Proof that science does not stop take a break even when we go on holiday

 

2.     Popping corn from melted candy: Microwave

The world’s first microwave popcorn is attributed to a gentleman by name Percy Spencer who thought himself to become an electrician and further developed himself to become a radio technology expert in the US Navy. In 1939, whiles working at a company by name Raytheon, to develop and produce combat radar equipment for M.I.T.’s Radiation Laboratory, Percy was building magnetrons for radar sets when he noticed a candy bar in his pocket had melted. Others had noticed similar heating effects with the radar but Spencer was the first to investigate this further. So he experimented with different food items one of which was popcorn kernels for making popcorn and they popped.

He went on to develop the first microwave cooking oven named the Radarange which Raytheon filed a patent for in 1945.

NS_Savannah_microwave_oven_MD8

The commercially produced version was about 6 feet tall, weighed around 750 pounds and retailed at $5000. Pricey huh! By 1967 it had been developed further to be relatively affordable at $495 and downsized to a counter-top model. Today you can have your very own brand new microwave for under GH¢250. 

 

 3.     From the heart to the penis: Viagra

Scientifically known as sildenafil and one of Pfizer’s most successful drugs, Viagra was discovered in 1992 after unusual side effects were noticed in male patients being treated for angina (a heart condition). The original intended use of the drug had failed during the clinical trials and just before the plug was pulled on the ‘failed’ angina drug, male volunteers who had been put on the trial started reporting an unusual but often not unwanted side effect (excessive erections). Chris Wayman who led the investigation into the reported side effects mimicked the arousal and erection process in the lab using penile tissue from an impotent man. He noticed that addition of Viagra to this tissue led to an erection. Wayman is quoted as describing the discovery of Viagra’s function as ‘something which could only be described as special’. Viagra is now one of the most prescribed drugs worldwide.

 

 4.     Makes flakes from dough: Cornflakes

Cornflakes is one of the more popular cereals around today loved by both adults and kids. The Kellogg brothers in 1898 were both working at an SDA run sanitarium, one as a medical officer the other as a book keeper and manager. They wanted to come up with a healthy vegetarian diet to serve as a substitute for bread to the residents. They decided to make dough from wheat and over boiled the mixture by accident only to return and find the dough had gone stale. When they rolled it out, the dough broke up into large flat flakes which they went ahead to bake. When the flakes were served to the residents it was an instant hit. The brothers then decided to repeat the process with corn and in 1906 Kellogg’s corn flakes was born.

The company has since gone on to produce other cereals such as rice krispies and bran flakes and a whole industry has been built around a case of overcooking mixed with ingenuity.

 

5.     From coal tar to sweetner: Saccharin

Saccharin is an artificial sweetener scientifically known as Benzoic sulfilimine and is the first artificial sweetener to be discovered (by chance). Controversy remains between Constantin Fahlberg and Ira Remsen, two scientists who were working at Johns Hopkins University on compounds derived from coal tar with regards to who actually discovered saccharin. In 1879 Constantin Fahlberg returned home from the lab and whiles having his meal, he noticed his bread roll tasted unusually sweet. He realized the sweetness was on his hands and not the roll. Fahlberg linked this sweetness to the compounds he was working on and investigated this further. After further investigations he narrowed down the sweetness to a derivative from the coal tar him and his colleague Ira Remsen had been working on. Fahlberg however patented the discovery after leaving John Hopkins which obviously caused a rift in his relationship with Remsen.

The sweet compound came in handy during the First World War when sugar was scarce as a substitute and has remained an alternative to sugar since. The lack of calories has made is popular with weight watchers and it’s been a golden alternative to sugar for diabetics. It is also used to sweeten many foods and drinks today. Personally I can’t stand the taste but but God bless the man who didn’t wash his hands properly before dinner.