Whoops: Better Living Through Accidents

by Curt Kovener

Serendipity is the name we give to a situation when you are looking for one thing but discover another. It would be akin to looking for a can of green beans in the basement and finding the hammer you thought you lost. There have been other serendipitous moments which have benefited and plagued mankind over the years. We seem to have labeled some of them ‘lab accidents’.
For instance, in the ninth century, a team of Chinese alchemists trying to synthesize an “elixir of immortality” from saltpeter, sulfur, realgar, and dried honey instead invented gunpowder.
•German scientist Hennig Brand stored 50 buckets of urine in his cellar for months in 1675, hoping that it would turn into gold. Instead, an obscure mix of alchemy and chemistry yielded a waxy, glowing goo that spontaneously burst into flame-the element now known as phosphorus.
And soldiers supplied the raw material in vast, sloshing quantities until the 1750s, when Swedish chemist Carl Scheele developed an industrial method of producing phosphorus. He discovered eight other elements, including chlorine, oxygen, and nitrogen, and compounds like ammonia, glycerin, and prussic acid. But, alas, Scheele was found dead in his lab at age 43, perhaps owing to his propensity for tasting his own toxic chemicals.
• And you might be interested to know that Kevlar, superglue, cellophane, Post-it notes, photographs, and the phonograph: They all emerged from laboratory blunders.
• “The Flash”, created in 1940, was the first comic book hero to develop superpowers after a lab accident, attaining “super speed” after inhaling “hard water” vapors.
•Alexander Fleming, famous for his serendipitous discovery of penicillin, also chanced upon an antibiotic enzyme in nasal mucus when he sneezed onto a bacterial sample and noticed that his snot kept the microbes in check.
•In 1938 DuPont chemist Roy Plunkett opened a dud canister of tetrafluoroethylene gas and discovered an amazing, nearly friction-free white powder. He named it Teflon. But perhaps he should have chucked it out instead. In 2005 the Environmental Protection Agency identified a Teflon ingredient, perfluorooctanoic acid, as a “likely carcinogen.” It is now in the bloodstream of 95 percent of Americans.