What's your favourite accidental scientific discovery?

In May 2017, the Naked Scientists reported on the discovery that the caterpillar of the wax moth can break down plastic bags. Remarkably, this was found out by accident! One day a...
25 May 2017



What's your favourite accidental scientific discovery?


Chris put this question to physicist Jess Wade from Imperial College London, to biochemist Andy Holding and biologist Kate Feller from Cambridge University, and to Space Boffin Richard Hollingham... 

Chris - A few weeks ago, here on the Naked Scientists, we reported on the discovery that the caterpillar of the wax moth can eat plastic bags. Remarkably, this was found out by accident! One day a researcher (who keeps bees as a hobby) was removing the caterpillars from her beehive and found they’d made holes in the bag she’d put them in! And it got us thinking about science done by accident, and I’m curious what else has been discovered like this.

Jess, what’s your favourite accidental discovery?

Jess - I have a few actually. There are so many accidents in physics that make magical things happen, one of which is Post-it notes. Scientists who were trying to make glue were obsessed with making the world’s strongest glue. Someone called Spencer silver was trying to make this really, really strong glue and he was systematically failing, which is great by the way in science!

What he did was accidently make a glue that was really, really rubbish and he put it on some paper and found the paper just came off everything he was putting it on. He was really frustrated but, actually, that’s incredibly useful when it comes to something like a Post-it note, where you just want to put it on a page and then take it off and not damage the page. He didn’t quite realise the kind of empire he’d created at this time, and I think that’s just really brilliant. You try and do one thing and you make something that’s actually much more valuable.

Chris - Richard?

Richard - I’m working on a documentary on the Voyager missions at the moment. Most space missions you get unexpected discoveries. You point a telescope at something, you find out all sorts of cool stuff. Voyager 1 in 1979 - it had been in space two years by this point and it was about to head off beyond the solar system. It was just past Jupiter and it needed to find its direction out of the solar system. It was using the moon Io to look and get its position. It sent the image back and they look at this image and it was all blurry at the top so they thought what’s going on with the camera? Maybe the camera’s broken? They took another image and they discovered that was a volcano! So they found the first active volcanos, other than on Earth, on this moon of Jupiter and now we know there are about 400 active volcanoes on the moon Io.

Chris - Kate?

Kate - Actually a recent paper came out that was based off of a guy’s accidental discovery. He’s a dragonfly biologist and he was at a pond waiting for female dragonflies who had just mated so that he could collect their eggs. He observed this female was being pursued by a male and she just dropped out of the sky and crash landed in the grass, and he thought that she had crashed and died. She was on her back in a very unnatural dead like position and the male came over and was like “oh, you’re dead, too bad”, and flew away.

Chris - How’s it go again?

Kate - “Oh, I’m really disappointed”. [giggles] Then the researcher went over to look at this female dragonfly and like lightning she just took off! So then he was like “oh, did she just fake her own death so she didn’t have to mate?” And he did a proper study and found that yes…

Chris - Are you saying that this is the dragonfly equivalent of “not tonight, I’ve got a headache”?

Kate - Yeah. Except of instead of actually articulating something you just played dead! If you were in the pub and some guy was picking on you and you just collapsed to the floor and people called an ambulance.

Chris - Does this happen to you much Kate?

Kate - No, I’m married so I don’t have that issue.


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