Oops, I invented the rocket! The explosive history of serendipity | Corrinne Burns | Notes & Theories blog | Science | guardian.co.uk

May 5, 2012

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Oops, I invented the rocket! The explosive history of serendipityVelcro, Vaseline, Teflon, penicillin, and now perhaps the rocket – they were all happy accidentsShare 49Comments 26 A man lets off fireworks during a festival in Guangzhou. Chinese alchemists created explosive mixtures in their quest for an elixir of life. Photograph: China Photos/GettyAny scientist will tell you – probably at length, if youre buying the drinks – that as much as they love their career, the day-to-day benchwork can be somewhat repetitive.Its the eureka moments that make science worthwhile, and such moments are all the sweeter when theyre unexpected. What the Dutch call geluk bij een ongeluk “happiness by accident” and English speakers call serendipity – although when an irritating colleague receives serendipitys blessing, were more likely to call him or her a jammy bastard.Happy accidents have a secure place in scientific history. Perhaps the best known example is of Alexander Fleming, who was working at St Marys Hospital in 1928 when he noticed that a culture of Staphylococcus aureus had become contaminated with mould – and the mould was destroying the bacteria. This chance observation led, ultimately, to the development of penicillin and other antibiotics. Similarly, x-rays, radiation and pulsars – and in a less exotic vein, Velcro, Vaseline and Teflon – all owe their discovery or existence to serendipity.Now it seems we should consider adding another item to that illustrious list: the rocket. Long held as an exemplar of Chinese technological inventiveness, the rocket – dating from the Sung Dynasty of AD 960-1279 – has changed the face of civilisation. But Frank Winter, working with colleagues from the Smithsonian Institution and Sydneys Powerhouse Museum, claims that the rocket was almost certainly an accidental invention.

via Oops, I invented the rocket! The explosive history of serendipity | Corrinne Burns | Notes & Theories blog | Science | guardian.co.uk.

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