Serendipity: The Role of Chance in Making Scientific Discoveries
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Serendipity: The Role of Chance in Making Scientific Discoveries

December 28, 2019

By Dr. C. D. Sreenivasa Murthy

One sometimes finds, what one is not looking for. When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionise all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I suppose that was exactly what I did. — Alexander Fleming

Serendipity is the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. The word has its origin in the fairy tale, called ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’: as these Princes travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in search of.

Archimedes and law of buoyancy

Probably one of the earliest serendipitous discoveries recorded is that of Archimedes. Archimedes was possibly the world’s greatest scientist in the classical age. He was a physicist, mathematician, astronomer, inventor and engineer. Archimedes was charged with proving that a new crown made for Hieron, the King of Syracuse, was not pure gold as the goldsmith had claimed. Archimedes thought long and hard but could not find a method for proving that the crown was not solid gold, without melting it. Pondering over the problem, he went to have his bath.

When he entered the bath tub fully filled with water, he noticed that water spilled over the edge as he got in and he realised that the water displaced by his body was equal to the weight of his body. Suddenly he had the serendipitous  idea that he could use this method for determining the purity of the crown. Forgetting that he was undressed, he went running naked down the streets from his home to the king shouting “Eureka!”(I have found it- in Greek).  

Knowing that gold was heavier than other metals the crown maker could have substituted in, Archimedes used this method to determine that the crown was not made of pure gold. Thus was born the Archimedes principle — physical law of buoyancy.

Issac Newton and law of gravity

 The legend is that Newton discovered gravity when he saw a falling apple while thinking about the forces of nature. Whatever really happened, Newton realised that some force must be acting on falling objects like apples because otherwise they would not start moving from rest. Newton discovered gravity with a little help from an apple tree in his childhood home, Woolsthorpe Manor in Grantham, Lincolnshire, England. 

Newton’s observation caused him to ponder why apples always fall straight to the ground (rather than sideways or upward) and inspired him to eventually develop his law of universal gravitation. Another serendipitous discovery that laid the foundations of modern Physics and Astronomy.

Author Srinivasa Murthy

Quinine and Malaria

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Quinine is an anti-malarial compound that comes from a tree bark. The legend says that the original discoverer found these properties with a stroke of luck. The legendary story tells of a feverish Andean man lost in the jungle and suffering from severe chills and fever of malaria.  Feeling very tired and thirsty, he drank from a pool of water at the base of a quina-quina tree. The water’s bitter taste made him fear that he’d drank something that would make him sicker. 

To his pleasant surprise, the opposite happened. His fever abated, and he was able to find his way home and share the story of the curative tree. The jesuit priests learnt from these native Andeans, the use of quinine for Malaria and Physicians started its use all over the world.

Oscar Minkowski and discovery of Insulin

In 1889, at the University of Strasbourg, Oscar Minkowski and fellow researchers were trying to understand the role of pancreas in digestion, so they removed the organ from a healthy dog. A few days later, when Minkowski came to the laboratory, the cleaning maid complained that ants and flies were swarming around the dog’s urine. It was something abnormal and unexpected and intrigued Minkowski. 

He tested the urine, and found sugar in it. He realised that by removing the pancreas, he had given the dog diabetes. He and his colleagues never figured out what the pancreas produced that regulated blood sugar. Minkowski had laid the foundation for research into the causes and treatment of diabetes. 

During a series of experiments that occurred  between 1920 and 1922, researchers at the University of Toronto were able to isolate a pancreatic secretion that they called insulin. Banting and Mcleod, who isolated insulin were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923.  And within a year, the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly was making and selling insulin. Insulin is probably one of the greatest discoveries in medical history and has helped millions of diabetic patients to live healthier and longer. 

Percy Spencer and the microwave

In 1946 Percy Spencer, an engineer for the Raytheon Corporation in USA, was working on a radar-related project. While testing a new vacuum tube, he discovered that a chocolate bar he had in his pocket melted quickly.  He became curious and started experimenting by aiming the tube at other items, such as eggs and popcorn kernels. Spencer concluded that the heat the objects experienced was from the microwave energy. Soon after, on October 8, 1945, Raytheon Corporation filed a patent for the first microwave. 

The first microwave weighed 750 pounds (340 kg) and stood 5′ 6″ (168 cm) tall. The first countertop microwave was introduced in 1965 and cost US$500. Today this serendipitous discovery has become an essential kitchen need for every home and food joint.

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Fleming and Penicillin

In 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming, a Professor of Bacteriology, noticed mould had started to grow on his petri dishes of Staphylococcus bacteria colonies.  Mould is a soft, green or grey fungal growth that develops on old food or on objects that have been left for too long in warm, wet air. While looking for the colonies he could salvage from those infected with the mould, he noticed something astonishing. Bacteria wasn’t growing around the mould. The mould actually turned out to be a rare strain of a fungus,  Penicillin notatum, that secreted a substance that inhibited bacterial growth. Fleming called this substance Penicillin. It was introduced in the 1940s, and Penicillin saved the lives of countless number of soldiers in the Second World War. Perhaps the most famous celebrity who was treated with this new wonder drug was Sir Winston Churchill, the war time British Prime Minister. He developed pneumonia and was secretly shifted to a warmer weather and was administered penicillin by a team of doctors which included Fleming. 

 In those days, Pneumonia was a very serious illness with high fatalities. Penicillin cured Churchill and he lived to savour British victory in the war. But many believe this story of treatment of Churchill to be a myth. Fleming and his colleagues Chain and Florey received Nobel Prize in 1945 for their great discovery. Penicillin ushered in a new generation of drugs called antibiotics, which revolutionised the treatment of infectious diseases like typhoid, pneumonia and others.


Viagra was the first treatment for erectile dysfunction, but that isn’t what it was originally tested for. Pfizer introduced the chemical Sildenafil, the active drug in Viagra, as a heart medication. During clinical trials the drug proved ineffective for heart conditions. But men noted that the medication seemed to cause another effect — stronger and longer-lasting erections. Even if they hadn’t been able to maintain an erection before, the ability returned while they were on Viagra. Pfizer conducted clinical trials on 4,000 men with erectile dysfunction, and saw the same results. Thus a wonder drug which catered to the egos of all men was born, and earned billions of dollars to the company.

Probably there are many more such serendipitous discoveries which have benefited mankind immensely. But it is important to note that these serendipitous accidents happened to experienced scientists and research workers who could grasp the significance of those unexpected events.  As Thomas Edison said, “Chance favours only a prepared mind.”

ONE COMMENT ON THIS POST To “Serendipity: The Role of Chance in Making Scientific Discoveries”

  1. arun says:

    Very informative and interesting article. Thanks for sharing.


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