Laboratory accidents are bound to happen. Someone spills a flask of hydrochloric acid or sets their ethanol beaker on fire. It happens. Just check out the list of possible dangers on the AIHA Laboratory Health and Safety Committee web page. But some of our greatest scientific discoveries come from accidents. Discovery has a list of 20 scientific blunders that includes gunpowder and LSD. It’s surprising how much is actually discovered through lab blunders. The list fails to mention anything about penicillin. Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928 while studying the properties of staphylococci. He had a tendency to leave culture dishes lying around his lab and came back from vacation to find a mold growing on all the plates. When he looked closer he noticed that there was a ring around the fungus where the bacteria had not grown. Thus the discovery of penicillin.
We owe a lot to uh-oh moments in science. Quinine, the small pox vaccine, and even X-rays were all accidents. Wilhem Conrad Rontgen won the Nobel Prize in 1901 for the X-ray discovery. He won the Nobel Prize because he was trying to see cathode rays escaping a glass tube. Instead he found that the rays were passing right through his cardboard glass protector and appearing on a fluorescent screen over a yard away. Well, if it could do that surely it could penetrate solids and record skeletal images on photographic negatives.
Chris is always slightly amazed that I haven’t chopped off a digit or set my hair on fire in the lab. I tend to be a little on the clumsy side. But who knows what scientific wonders will come from one of my clumsy moments?