December 28, 2011

Happy accidents, in Art and Science

Blobs of ink spill over the page.. and out of the shadowy pool emerge visions of tubing and syringes, veination, neurons, and pulsing organs. Vesna Jovanovic described a while back how she came to create her Pareidolia series of images, like the one below, out of randomly spilled ink.

Art and science both usually require a process of study, synthesis, and imagination to generate great new ideas - visionary new hypotheses, experiments, or masterpieces. But the haphazard nature of Vesna's inkblot creations remind me of another way that great scienctific discoveries have oft been achieved - by happy accident.

Most people have heard the story of penicillin's discovery. Absent-minded scientist (Alexander Fleming) leaves bacterial cultures out unprotected, returns to find a fungus has invaded, surrounded by a bateriocidal ring of death. But there is also the story of Constantin Fahlberg, who discovered the sweet properties of saccharin by contaminating his meal with hands still dirty from the lab (presumably then returning to the lab to taste his coal tar extracts and figure out which one was so delicious). And Percy L. Spencer was set on the path to create the modern microwave oven after a magnetron (a component found at the heart of radars) melted the chocolate bar in his pocket. And many more...

Read more:
discovery top 10 accidental inventions
popsci top 10 accidental science
Vesna Jovanovic