15 Science Experiments With (Great) Unintended Consequences
You’d be surprised at how often science meets serendipity. Without happy lab accidents, we might never have discovered phosphorous or penicillin. Moreover, once an experiment’s been conducted, not even the most prescient of researchers can foresee its every impact. Who could’ve predicted, for instance, that a kerosene test would help out sperm whales? Necessity may be the mother of invention, but—as we’ll see—Lady Luck often guides the way.
1. THE GOAL: SYNTHETIC RUBBER // THE RESULT: AMERICA’S FAVORITE TOY
In World War II, the allied forces were handicapped by a severe rubber shortage. By occupying a swath of rubber-producing countries in southeast Asia, Japan had put a stranglehold on the commodity. For Britain and America, this was a serious blow. Without rubber, it would be impossible to equip their troops with such vital supplies as truck tires or gas masks. Enter an American engineer based in New Haven, Connecticut, who tried to produce a cheap, synthetic rubber. He conducted several experiments, but ultimately failed in his quest. However, one day in 1943, he made a surprising discovery. Upon mixing boric acid with silicone oil, he (accidentally) invented a magic putty that could bounce, shatter, stretch, and—when applied to a newspaper—copy the print in reverse. Thus, one of the nation’s most popular toys ever was born.
2. THE GOAL: A CURE FOR MALARIA // THE RESULT: SYNTHETIC DYE, SNAIL-SAVER
William Perkin set out to fight malaria. Instead, he revolutionized the clothing industry. During his youth, malaria was ravaging Britain’s colonies. The only known remedy was quinine—a compound found in the bark of South American trees, which was very expensive to harvest. So in 1856, Perkin (a student enrolled at London’s College of Chemistry) took a stab at developing man-made quinine. After some dead-end experiments, he tinkered with a coal byproduct called aniline. The result was a thick sludge that stained his clothes purple—or “mauve” as he called it. Just like that, the first synthetic dye was created. In doing so, he may have inadvertently rescued a certain mollusk from the brink of extinction. Previously, the most common way to get purple dye was by boiling the marine snail Bolinus brandaris alive. By comparison, Perkins’ goo was both cheaper and more resilient, killing all demand for that snail-based stuff.
3. THE GOAL: SETTLE A DEBATE // THE RESULT: MOTION PICTURES
A photographer by trade, Eadweard Muybridge definitively answered an age-old scientific question. For centuries, people wondered if galloping horses take all four hooves off the ground in mid-stride. Muybridge was asked to settle this debate by one of his customers, California governor Leland Stanford. In May 1878, he set up 24 cameras along a SoCal racetrack. Each was equipped with a special tripwire. At Muybridge’s command, a mare named Sallie Gardner and her rider galloped in front of the lenses, setting off the tripwires in succession as they went. The resultant series of 24 images proved—once and for all—that horses do indeed break contact with the earth as they run. But Muybridge wasn’t finished yet. Not by a long shot. He went on to produce over 700 other motion studies, capturing everything from how pigeons fly to how a javelin is thrown. In the process, he helped beget a new art form: Historians credit Muybridge with inspiring some of the very first movie projectors and cameras.
4. THE GOAL: EXPERIMENT WITH HYDROGEN // THE RESULT: ESSENTIAL PARTY DECOR
Michael Faraday rose from abject poverty to invent the first electric motor—and the first electric generator. He also discovered benzene, popularized the word “ion,” and correctly guessed that light is an electromagnetic phenomenon. Not a bad resume. In 1824, Faraday also built the first rubber balloons to help him carry out some experiments with hydrogen. The very next year, manufacturer Thomas Hancock started selling these as toys. By the 1930s, they’d become a staple at parties on both sides of the Atlantic. No doubt Faraday would’ve appreciated their rise in popularity.
5. THE GOAL: PROVE THAT GASES COULD BE LIQUIFIED // THE RESULT: REFRIGERANTS
In 1823, Faraday took a v-shaped glass tube and filled it with chlorine hydrate. He then simultaneously heated one side while cooling the other, in an attempt to prove the theory that gases could be liquefied if introduced to low temperatures or high pressures. After a while, he noticed a peculiar liquid at the bottom of his container. Ever inquisitive, Faraday gently cracked open the tube. What followed was a sudden, forceful blast that sent glass shards every which way. In the aftermath, Faraday learned two things. For starters, internal pressure must have converted his chlorine hydrate into a liquid. Also, the explosion had somehow cooled down the air around him. Without meaning to, he’d just planted the seeds for the technology behind today’s iceboxes, freezers, and refrigerators.
6. THE GOAL: EXPERIMENT WITH GLASS // THE RESULT: YOUR STOVETOP
A temperature snafu was arguably the best thing that ever happened to one New York-based chemist in 1953. While tinkering with some photosensitive glass, the scientist placed a sample into a furnace and set it to 600°C—or so he thought. Then he took a breather. “When I came back, the temperature gauge was stuck on 900 degrees and I thought I’d wrecked the furnace,” he later recalled. Immediately, he pulled out the glass, which had somehow turned milky white and rock-hard. Lo and behold, his blooper created the world’s first glass-ceramic, which has since been used in everything from glass stovetops to the noses of guided missiles.
7. THE GOAL: WEIGH THE EARTH // THE RESULT: A CRUCIAL MAPMAKING TOOL
Science doesn’t get much more ambitious than this. In 1774, British astronomer Nevil Maskelyne set out to calculate the mass of our home planet. How could he possibly pull that off? Maskelyne’s strategy was two-fold. First, he determined the exact percentage of the earth’s surface that’s covered by the Schiehallion mountain in central Scotland. Afterwards, his team spent 17 arduous weeks measuring Schiehallion’s every slope and cranny. This allowed Maskelyne to estimate the mountain’s mass—and, from there, the world’s. For the record, he concluded that earth has a mass of 4.5 x 1024 kilograms. Modern science puts that number at 5.98 x 1024 kilograms. Pretty amazing, isn’t it? Maskelyne’s right-hand man was mathematician Charles Hutton. To help their crew go about the whole mountain-measuring business, Hutton invented “contour lines.” A series of concentric circles, these connect points of equal elevation on maps. Over 200 years later, cartographers are still using them.
8. THE GOAL: SAFER REFRIGERANTS // THE RESULT: NONSTICK COOKWARE
In 1938, a recently-graduated chemistry Ph.D. was tasked with finding alternatives to sulfur dioxide and ammonia—two commonly-used refrigerants that had been poisoning people. Believing that tetrafluoroethylene gas (TFE) might be the answer, the researcher created 100 pounds’ worth. This was stored in tiny containers at very low temperatures. Imagine his shock when he discovered that his precious gas had been transformed into a waxy white substance. However, the goo did have a few desirable qualities. Whatever this material was, it was both slippery and heat-resistant. Excited about its potential, he spent the next few years developing his product. In 1944, it hit the market as a nonstick coating that’s revolutionized pots and pans.
9. THE GOAL: LIGHT THE WAY // THE RESULT: SPARE THOUSANDS OF SPERM WHALES
Earth’s third-largest mammal is so named because of a strange, milky substance that’s found only in their skulls. Formally referred to as “spermaceti,” its biological function has always been a mystery. Nonetheless, human beings have found a use for it. Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, spermaceti-powered lamps were used all over the industrialized world. Sadly, lust for this commodity took a serious toll on the animals that produced it. Between 1801 and 1900, approximately 236,000 sperm whales were slaughtered. Yet, in 1849, the tide started turning. That pivotal year, Canadian geologist Abraham Gesner devised a way to distill kerosene from petroleum. Cheaper and longer-lasting than spermaceti, kerosene-based lamp fuels more or less killed off the sperm whale industry.
10. THE GOAL: STUDY A BACTERIA // THE RESULT: A GAME-CHANGING CURE
“I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the first antibiotic, or bacteria killer,” Alexander Fleming would later say. “But that was exactly what I did.” In September 1928, he was the resident bacteriologist at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. For several weeks, Fleming observed cultures of the Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. Then he took a vacation. Upon his return, he was startled to find that some of his petri dishes had been infected by a fungus known as Penicillium notatum. Intriguingly, this organism effectively stunted the bacteria’s growth. Fleming’s chance discovery gave drive to penicillin—a drug that’s saved an estimated 200 million lives.
11. THE GOAL: IMPROVE WEAPONS, PROTECT PLANES // THE RESULT: SUPER GLUE
In the midst of World War II, an American chemist was asked to build a new plastic sight for Allied military rifles. Towards this end, he played around with many different compounds. One of these was a sticky material called cyanoacrylate. After a brief test period, the chemist forgot all about this tenacious goop. Fast-forward to 1951. That year, the scientist was trying to create a heat-resistant coating for jet plane windshields. Once again, he tried experimenting with cyanoacrylate. And, once again, his efforts didn’t help the cause. But this time, he advised his bosses to sell this substance as a commercial adhesive, and thus, super glue was born.
13. THE GOAL: MAKE TIRES TOUGHER // THE RESULT: BULLETPROOF VESTS
In 1965, a chemist, who had spent years trying to produce a super-tough fiber that could be used in tires, created what looked like an unassuming liquid polymer. But things got interesting when she found that it could be used to make fibers that were five times stronger than steel. The substance she created has since become a vital component in today’s bulletproof vests.
14. THE GOAL: TURN PEE INTO GOLD (REALLY) // THE RESULT: DISCOVER AN ELEMENT
Nobody knows how many jars of urine were kept in Henning Brand’s basement. By some accounts, the German alchemist may’ve had as much as 1500 gallons’ worth down there. Why did he gather so much pee? Believe it or not, this was a get-rich scheme—or so he thought. Brand was convinced that, by distilling human urine, he could somehow create gold. Over a 6-year period, the eccentric went out and gathered samples whenever (and from whomever) he could. Needless to say, Brand’s hypothesis was incorrect. Still, in 1669, he did make one huge scientific breakthrough. After boiling some of his collection, he noticed a weird, glowing liquid at the bottom of the vial. Unbeknownst to Brand, he’d just discovered phosphorous.
15. THE GOAL: KEEP FRUIT FRESHER // THE RESULT: SAVE THE BATS?
A global bat epidemic, White Nose Syndrome has killed an estimated 5.7 million of the mammals worldwide. The cause is a Eurasian fungus known as Pseudogymnoascus destructans. When that organism infects a flying mammal, it seriously dehydrates the poor creature. Afflicted bats are then forced to wake up from their hibernation prematurely and often, and in doing so, burn up precious fat preserves. Famished, most victims starve to death while looking for food. Luckily though, a cure may soon be on the way. In 2012, a team from a Georgia-based university started experimenting with the common bacteria Rhodococcus rhodochrous. “Originally, we were investigating [it] for various industrial activities,” the lead researcher has explained. The group discovered that this single-celled life form stunts the growth of rot-inducing fungi in bananas. Thus, R. rhodochrous can keep fruits ripe over extended periods. And that’s not all. The team wondered if the bacterium would have a similar effect on the fungus behind WNS. So they rounded up hundreds of infected bats and exposed them to R. rhodochrous. Those that received “treatment” were then allowed to hibernate. Months later, the bats were examined—and the results were quite promising. Every single test bat had—at least partially—recovered. One day, this breakthrough could help us vanquish WNS altogether. If it does, bats will be forever indebted to—of all things—bananas. Isn’t science great?