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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles:
Teach High School Science

Serendipity, Science, and the Rest of the Story
Judy Jones

Students love stories. Stories help to make a science course relevant and interesting. I try to sprinkle interesting stories into most of my science lessons and some of my favorites involve those serendipitous moments in science that have led to great discoveries. I find that my students are really engaged by stories that involve luck. (I suspect that they even hope for a little luck when it comes to their grades!) I use some of these stories to help my students see that what may appear to be serendipity actually involves a lot of preparedness. (And I hope that they will take the hint!).

Here are a few of these stories and some suggestions for you to discover your own stories – ones that would be relevant to your courses. Share them with your class or build a unit around them.

Serendipity: “The faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident”

English author and historian, Horace Walpole, first coined the word “serendipity.” In a 1754 letter to Horace Mann written about a fortuitous discovery concerning a portrait that he was mailing, he referred to it as a kind of serendipity. He explained that Serendip was an old name for Sri Lanka and that the word was used in a title of a silly fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip, that involves three princes traveling around and making discoveries by accident that they were not looking to discover.

“-- you don't reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings ... serendipitously." (John Barth, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor)

Preparedness: There is a very famous and oft quoted statement by Louis Pasteur, given at a lecture in 1854: “Dans les champs de l'observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.” Which translated means, “In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.”

The Stories: The following stories have a little serendipity blended with a very prepared mind!

Alexander Fleming
"When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn't plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world's first antibiotic, or bacteria killer, but I guess that was exactly what I did."

Most biology teachers are very familiar with the story of Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin. As we often tell the story, Dr. Fleming came into his lab one day in 1928 and found that a mold had contaminated his cultures of staphylococcus. There was no bacterial growth in a zone of inhibition around the mold colonies. Voila ! Dr. Fleming realized that this was useful and the rest is history. penicillin became a wonder drug for fighting bacterial diseases. But as with most stories there is a little more to it. Pasteur’s quote referencing the “prepared mind” is very significant.

Six years before, in 1922, Dr. Fleming had noticed this same ring of inhibition around some bacteria in a culture to which he had added his own nasal drippings. (Kids love this!) Of course he reasoned that something in the nasal mucus must prevent bacterial growth. This led to further experiments using mucus and tears. The same bacterial growth inhibition effect was observed. Through further experimentation, he determined that the molecule in mucus and tears was an enzyme that was digesting the bacteria (lysozyme). He even published a paper on this “remarkable bacteriolytic element” found in certain tissue fluids.

In 1928 when he observed the mold on his bacterial cultures, his mind was certainly “prepared” to see the significance of the inhibited bacterial growth! In 1874, William Roberts (1830-99) observed that cultures of the mold Penicillium glaucum did not exhibit bacterial contamination.

And if we go back further in history (mid 1800’s), we learn that Louis Pasteur, himself, and Jules Francois Joubert, while researching the anthrax bacterium, noted that the bacterial cells would not grow when the cultures were contaminated with mold.

Joseph Lister, a little later observed that urine samples that became mold contaminated would not grow bacteria. Lister even tried to find the mold agent that was inhibiting the bacterial growth but he was unsuccessful.

And in the very late 1800’s, a French medical student, Ernest Duchesne, tested a material that he had refined and found that it inhibited bacterial growth. The source of his substance? The mold, Penicillium!
It is logical to assume that Fleming’s “prepared mind” would have included some of this history.

The discovery of penicillin is a great story, but perhaps not a story of pure serendipity!

Luigi Galvani
"For it is easy in experimentation to be deceived and to think one has seen and discovered what we desire to see and discover.” (Galvani)

Galvani is credited with having a serendipitous moment also. He had been studying the movement of frog muscles when touched by the metal of an electrostatic machine. By chance, an assistant touched the point of a scalpel to the dissected leg of a frog. The metal of the scalpel caused the frog’s leg to jerk. It was further observed that this only happened when there was a spark from the nearby electrical machine. (One version of this story is that Galvani’s wife, a very educated woman, is the one who noticed this effect and asked the assistant to do it again.) Galvani hypothesized that the electrical charge was somehow making the frog’s legs jump. And to test his theory he hung frog’s legs from the brass hooks on a gate in his garden. (He must have had understanding neighbors!) He discovered that a combination of moist silver and zinc would cause the biggest jump of the legs. But the effect would only work once. This confused him, so he went to consult with a friend of his, Alessandro Volta. From the work of these two men came the voltaic battery. In addition, the experiments on the muscles of the frog’s legs led to more research and a better understanding of the electrical nature of neurons and their importance in the contraction of muscles.

Although much of Galvani’s research evolved from a chance event, it was well within the realm of his research. His background and his education meant that he was prepared to see the significance of the discovery. An unprepared mind might have just dismissed the observation as unusual, but a prepared mind such as Galvani’s saw the potential knowledge in this chance event.

Lewis Thomas, a truly renaissance man, who was a science author, physician, poet, essayist, educator, researcher, and much more, once said, "I'm not as fond of the notion of serendipity as I used to be. It seems to me now that as you get research going... things are bound to begin happening if you've got your wits about you. You create the lucky accidents."

Botulism!
A much more recent discovery that involves a little serendipity involves the use of Botox to smooth out those pesky aging wrinkles! Botox is a protein from Clostridium botulinum, a bacterium that causes terrible food poisoning by upsetting nervous impulses from the central nervous system. This protein can cause difficulty in swallowing, moving, talking, seeing and ultimately can cause paralysis and death. It is the most toxic protein known to humans.

In 1987, a Canadian ophthalmologist, Dr. Carruthers had a patient with blepharospasm. This is a condition that may cause dry eyes. Those annoying eye tics are a mild benign form of blepharospasm, but the condition can be more severe. Dr. Carruthers decided to use Botox (which was not well known then) to paralyze the nerve and reduce the twitching of the muscle. The procedure worked really well, but the patient kept coming back for more injections because they seemed to smooth out her wrinkles and make her look younger. And from this grew an industry.

Even more interesting, through the process of using Botox for wrinkles, it was discovered that patients who also suffered from migraine headaches were sometimes relieved for weeks and even months after a Botox injection. More seredipity!! In addition to smoothing muscles, it interfered with the nerve transmissions that were causing some migraines. And now some doctors even use Botox injections to pinpoint the muscles that are associated with the migraine and then remove those muscles – a permanent fix. To see which muscle or muscles are involved, the doctor will inject each muscle one at a time and observe whether the patient experiences relief or not.

Ideas for More Stories: If you are as intrigued as I am by the power of stories in science, especially those stories that involve a bit of educated luck, here are a few sources that might be useful.

Books
Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science by Royston M. Roberts, and Lucky Science: Accidental Discoveries From Gravity to Velcro, with Experiments, also by Roberts.

Happy Accidents: Serendipity in modern medical breakthroughs by Morton A. Meyes

A Skeleton in the Darkroom: Stories of Serendipity in Science by Gilbert Shapiro

Links
Wikipedia has a whole list of interesting scientific discoveries involving serendipity which you could research further online.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serendipity

And here is a link to a PBS Nova special that involves a few medical discoveries.
http://pbs.org/wgbh/nova/cancer/discoveries.html

For chemistry teachers, there is a wonderful website with stories about some serendipitous discoveries involving polymers.
http://thebakken.org/education/scimathmn/polymers-serendipity/polymer1.htm

And for physics teachers:
http://jimloy.com/science/serendip.htm

As always, if you have comments or ideas, please share them with me.

 

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