Accidental Science: Our 5 Favourite F*ck-ups

We can often be fooled into thinking scientists have a carefully thought out plan and that no discovery happens by accident. Most of the time this couldn’t be further from the truth, so let’s explore some of the greatest scientific accidents:

  • We can’t talk about accidental discoveries without mentioning Alexander Flemming’s discovery of penicillin. The Scot found the miracle fungus after taking a holiday and leaving cultures growing in his lab. Upon his return he found something had killed the bacteria in the culture and gave us the one of the first antibiotics.
  • Cosmic microwave background radiation is that fuzz that we see on old TVs when not tuned properly. In 1964, two radio astronomers, Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias found background noise they couldn’t explain. They finally found an explanation in Robert Dicke’s theory of background radiation which eventually led to the confirmation of the Big Bang.
  • It’s hard to believe that Coca-Cola originally started life as a cure for headaches, or at least that’s what John Pemberton originally intended. He mixed coco leaves and cola nuts together to make his hopeful cure. A lab assistant mixed these with carbonated water and gave us our first Coke.
  • The little blue pill or Viagra started its humble life as a medication to treat Angina Pectoris (chest pain caused by spasms in the coronary artery). Spoiler alert – it didn’t do that but was found to very effective at increasing blood flow in other areas of the body.
  • The modern kitchen wouldn’t be complete without a microwave. In 1945, Raytheon engineer Percy Spencer was mucking around with radar equipment only to discover he’d melted the chocolate bar in his pocket – a messy start to a useful device.


Sam McMaster

Science Editor

(Image courtesy of Universal History Archive / Getty Images)

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