4 lab accidents that changed the world

A lab mishap caused a productive discovery. Ignas Krakys for Popular Science

This story initially appeared in the Messy problem of Popular Science. Current customers can gain access to the entire digital edition here, or click on this link for a brand-new membership.

It all began with a damaged beaker in St. Paul, Minnesota. 3M chemist Patsy Sherman was dealing with an artificial rubber implied to sustain the freezing temperature levels airplane encounter at high elevation when her assistant let the compound slip. The polymer sprinkled all over the specialist’s tennis shoes, and absolutely nothing would eliminate it.

Intrigued, her manager recommended using the chemical to material. Sherman found that H20 and solvents streamed straight off anything treated with the things, making it both water resistant and stain-resistant. In 1956, after 3 more years of experimentation, 3M presented Sherman’s discovery under the trademark name Scotchgard.

The genius of the unanticipated depend on its capability to stimulate scientists and creators to reevaluate their work simply enough to drive development. Many of science and technology’s most well-known discoveries have actually been the outcome of serendipitous strokes of luck. Microbiologist Alexander Fleming came across penicillin in musty petri meals he’d ignored while on holiday. Engineer Percy Spencer stopped briefly in front of a radar magnetron and understood the sweet bar in his pocket was melting, causing the development of microwave.

[Related: PFAS are everywhere—and the EPA has a new plan to fight back]

But today’s dazzling discoveries can likewise end up being tomorrow’s mistakes. In the case of Scotchgard, the long chains of fluorine that are a crucial part of its structure stay in water and soil for years. These per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds (PFAS) have actually been discovered in the bodies of people and animals around the world and connected to lowered fertility, developmental hold-ups, and hormone interruptions. “They are pretty much everywhere you look,” states Alissa Cordner, a sociologist at Whitman College and co-director of the PFAS Project Lab. 3M phased the chemicals out in the 2000s.

Sherman’s lucky incident led to among her business’s best-known items. Even if her work isn’t acknowledged for the factors she may have desired, it reveals that not every option is best, however a much better one might be simply one fault away.

Three more errors that exercised

A Kevlar vest. Image: Ignas Krakys for Popular Science.


In 1965, DuPont chemist Stephanie Kwolek mishandled a polymer meant to lighten tires. Her error led to Kevlar, a fiber 5 times more powerful than steel. Today it is a crucial part of body armor, drums, and even racing canoes.

An illustration of an implantable pacemaker.
An implantable pacemaker. Image: Ignas Krakys for Popular Science

The implantable pacemaker

Engineer Wilson Greatbatch set out to construct a heart screen however set up the incorrect resistor. Instead of taping heartbeat-like electrical impulses, his device produced them. That caused the advancement of the internal pacemaker in 1956.

An illustration of a cupcake made with saccharin.
A cupcake made with saccharin. Image: Ignas Krakys for Popular Science


In 1879, Russian chemist Constantin Fahlberg discovered his food was unusually sweet—and tracked the taste to a coal tar by-product on his hands. That triggered the discovery of saccharin, a compound that depends on 700 times sweeter than sugar yet has no calories.

The post 4 lab accidents that changed the world appeared initially on Popular Science.

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