8 Brilliant Scientific Screw-ups

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By Eric Elfman

Hard work and dedication have their time and place, but the values of failure and ineptitude have gone unappreciated for far too long. They say that patience is a virtue, but the following eight inventions prove that laziness, slovenliness, clumsiness and pure stupidity can be virtues, too.

1. Anesthesia (1844)

Mistake Leading to Discovery: Recreational drug use
Lesson Learned: Too much of a good thing can sometimes be, well, a good thing

Nitrous oxide was discovered in 1772, but for decades the gas was considered no more than a party toy. People knew that inhaling a little of it would make you laugh (hence the name "laughing gas"), and that inhaling a little more of it would knock you unconscious. But for some reason, it hadn't occurred to anyone that such a property might be useful in, say, surgical operations.

Finally, in 1844, a dentist in Hartford, Conn., named Horace Wells came upon the idea after witnessing a nitrous mishap at a party. High on the gas, a friend of Wells fell and suffered a deep gash in his leg, but he didn't feel a thing. In fact, he didn't know he'd been seriously injured until someone pointed out the blood pooling at his feet.

To test his theory, Wells arranged an experiment with himself as the guinea pig. He knocked himself out by inhaling a large does of nitrous oxide, and then had a dentist extract a rotten tooth from his mouth. When Wells came to, his tooth had been pulled painlessly.

To share his discovery with the scientific world, he arranged to perform a similar demonstration with a willing patient in the amphitheatre of the Massachusetts General Hospital. But things didn't exactly go as planned. Not yet knowing enough about the time it took for the gas to kick in, Wells pulled out the man's tooth a little prematurely, and the patient screamed in pain. Wells was disgraced and soon left the profession. Later, after being jailed while high on chloroform, he committed suicide. It wasn't until 1864 that the American Dental Association formally recognized him for his discovery.

2. Iodine (1811)

Mistake Leading to Discovery: Industrial accident
Lesson Learned: Seaweed is worth its weight in salt

In the early 19th century, Bernard Courtois was the toast of Paris. He had a factory that produced saltpeter (potassium nitrate), which was a key ingredient in ammunition, and thus a hot commodity in Napoleon's France. On top of that, Courtois had figured out how to fatten his profits and get his saltpeter potassium for next to nothing. He simply took it straight from the seaweed that washed up daily on the shores. All he had to do was collect it, burn it, and extract the potassium from the ashes.

One day, while his workers were cleaning the tanks used for extracting potassium, they accidentally used a stronger acid than usual. Before they could say "sacre bleu!," mysterious clouds billowed from the tank. When the smoke cleared, Courtois noticed dark crystals on all the surfaces that had come into contact with the fumes. When he had them analyzed, they turned out to be a previously unknown element, which he named iodine, after the Greek word for "violet." Iodine, plentiful in saltwater, is concentrated in seaweed. It was soon discovered that goiters, enlargements of the thyroid gland, were caused by a lack of iodine in the diet. So, in addition to its other uses, iodine is now routinely added to table salt.

3. Penicillin (1928)

Mistake Leading to Discovery: Living like a pig
Lesson Learned: It helps to gripe to your friends about your job

Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming had a, shall we say, relaxed attitude toward a clean working environment. His desk was often littered with small glass dishes—a fact that is fairly alarming considering that they were filled with bacteria cultures scraped from boils, abscesses and infections. Fleming allowed the cultures to sit around for weeks, hoping something interesting would turn up, or perhaps that someone else would clear them away.

Finally one day, Fleming decided to clean the bacteria-filled dishes and dumped them into a tub of disinfectant. His discovery was about to be washed away when a friend happened to drop by the lab to chat with the scientist. During their discussion, Fleming griped good-naturedly about all the work he had to do and dramatized the point by grabbing the top dish in the tub, which was (fortunately) still above the surface of the water and cleaning agent. As he did, Fleming suddenly noticed a dab of fungus on one side of the dish, which had killed the bacteria nearby. The fungus turned out to be a rare strain of penicillium that had drifted onto the dish from an open window.

Fleming began testing the fungus and found that it killed deadly bacteria, yet was harmless to human tissue. However, Fleming was unable to produce it in any significant quantity and didn't believe it would be effective in treating disease. Consequently, he downplayed its potential in a paper he presented to the scientific community. Penicillin might have ended there as little more than a medical footnote, but luckily, a decade later, another team of scientists followed up on Fleming's lead. Using more sophisticated techniques, they were able to successfully produce one of the most life-saving drugs in modern medicine.

4. The Telephone (1876)

Mistake Leading to Discovery: Poor foreign language skills
Lesson Learned: A little German is better than none

In the 1870s, engineers were working to find a way to send multiple messages over one telegraph wire at the same time. Intrigued by the challenge, Alexander Graham Bell began experimenting with possible solutions. After reading a book by Hermann Von Helmholtz, Bell got the idea to send sounds simultaneously over a wire instead. But as it turns out, Bell's German was a little rusty, and the author had mentioned nothing about the transmission of sound via wire. Too late for Bell though; the inspiration was there, and he had already set out to do it.

The task proved much more difficult than Bell had imagined. He and his mechanic, Thomas Watson, struggled to build a device that could transmit sound. They finally succeeded, however, and came up with the telephone.

5. Photography (1835)

Mistake Leading to Discovery: Not doing the dishes
Lesson Learned: Put off today what you can do tomorrow

Between 1829 and 1835, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre was close to becoming the first person to develop a practical process for producing photographs. But he wasn't home yet.

Daguerre had figured out how to expose an image onto highly polished plates covered with silver iodide, a substance known to be sensitive to light. However, the images he was producing on these polished plates were barely visible, and he didn't know how to make them darker.

After producing yet another disappointing image one day, Daguerre tossed the silverized plate in his chemical cabinet, intending to clean it off later. But when he went back a few days later, the image had darkened to the point where it was perfectly visible. Daguerre realized that one of the chemicals in the cabinet had somehow reacted with the silver iodide, but he had no way of know which one it was, and there were a whole lot of chemicals in that cabinet.

For weeks, Daguerre took one chemical out of the cabinet every day and put in a newly exposed plate. But every day, he found a less-than-satisfactory image. Finally, as he was testing the very last chemical, he got the idea to put the plate in the now-empty cabinet, as he had done the first time. Sure enough, the image on the plate darkened. Daguerre carefully examined the shelves of the cabinet and found what he was looking for. Weeks earlier, a thermometer in the cabinet had broken, and Daguerre (being the slob that he was) didn't clean up the mess very well, leaving a few drops of mercury on the shelf. Turns out, it was the mercury vapor interacting with the silver iodide that produced the darker image. Daguerre incorporated mercury vapor into his process, and the Daguerreotype photograph was born.

6. Mauve Dye (1856)

Mistake Leading to Discovery: Delusions of grandeur
Lesson Learned: Real men wear mauve

In 1856, an 18-year-old British chemistry student named William Perkin attempted to develop a synthetic version of quinine, the drug commonly used to treat malaria. It was a noble cause, but the problem was, he had no idea what he was doing.

Perkin started by mixing aniline (a colorless, oily liquid derived from coal-tar, a waste product of the steel industry) with propylene gas and potassium dichromate. It's a wonder he didn't blow himself to bits, but the result was just a disappointing black mass stuck to the bottom of his flask. As Perkin started to wash out the container, he noticed that the black substance turned the water purple, and after playing with it some more, he discovered that the purple liquid could be used to dye cloth.

With financial backing from his wealthy father, Perkin began a dye-making business, and his synthetic mauve colorant soon became popular. Up until the time of Perkin's discovery, natural purple dye had to be extracted from Mediterranean mollusks, making it extremely expensive. Perkin's cheap coloring not only jumpstarted the synthetic dye industry (and gave birth to the colors used in J.Crew catalogs), it also sparked the growth of the entire field of organic chemistry.

7. Nylon (1934)

Mistake Leading to Discovery: Workplace procrastination
Lesson Learned: When the cat's away, the mice should play

In 1934, researchers at DuPont were charged with developing synthetic silk. But after months of hard work, they still hadn't found what they were looking for, and the head of the project, Wallace Hume Carothers, was considering calling it quits. The closest they had come was creating a liquid polymer that seemed chemically similar to silk, but in its liquid form wasn't very useful. Deterred, the researchers began testing other, seemingly more promising substances called polyesters.

One day, a young (and apparently bored) scientist in the group noticed that if he gathered a small glob of polyester on a glass stirring rod, he could use it to pull thin strands of the material from the beaker. And for some reason (prolonged exposure to polyester fumes, perhaps?) he found this hilarious. So on a day when boss-man Carothers was out of the lab, the young researcher and his co-workers started horsing around and decided to have a competition to see who could draw the longest threads from the beaker. As they raced down the hallway with the stirring rods, it dawned on them: By stretching the substance into strands, they were actually re-orienting the molecules and making the liquid material solid.

Ultimately, they determined that the polyesters they were playing with couldn't be used in textiles, like DuPont wanted, so they turned to their previously unsuccessful silk-like polymer. Unlike the polyester, it could be drawn into solid strands that were strong enough to be woven. This was the first completely synthetic fiber, and they named the material Nylon.

8. Vulcanized Rubber (1844)

Mistake Leading to Discovery: Obsession combined with butterfingers
Lesson Learned: A little clumsiness can go a long way

In the early 19th century, natural rubber was relatively useless. It melted in hot weather and became brittle in the cold. Plenty of people had tried to "cure" rubber so it would be impervious to temperature changes, but no one had succeeded "– that is, until Charles Goodyear stepped in (or so he claims). According to his own version of the tale, the struggling businessman became obsessed with solving the riddle of rubber, and began mixing rubber with sulfur over a stove. One day, he accidentally spilled some of the mixture onto the hot surface, and when it charred like a piece of leather instead of melting, he knew he was onto something.

The truth, according to well-documented sources, is somewhat different. Apparently, Goodyear learned the secret of combining rubber and sulfur from another early experimenter. And it was one of his partners who accidentally dropped a piece of fabric impregnated with the rubber and sulfur mixture onto a hot stove. But it was Goodyear who recognized the significance of what happened, and he spent months trying to find the perfect combination of rubber, sulfur and high heat. (Goodyear also took credit for coining the term "vulcanization" for the process, but the word was actually first used by an English competitor.) Goodyear received a patent for the process in 1844, but spent the rest of his life defending his right to the discovery. Consequently, he never grew rich and, in fact, wound up in debtors prison more than once. Ironically, rubber became a hugely profitable industry years later, with the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. at the forefront.

This article originally appeared in a 2009 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Mapping Technology Reveals 'Lost Cities' on National Geographic

Lin uses his iPad to visualize scanning data of a crusaders' fortress at the lagoon in Acre, Israel.
Lin uses his iPad to visualize scanning data of a crusaders' fortress at the lagoon in Acre, Israel.
Blakeway Productions/National Geographic

Imagine what Pompeii looked like before the lava hit, or Mayan pyramids before the jungle took over. In the past decade, scientists have been able to explore human settlements long since abandoned by using a new wave of accessible technology. Instead of needing an expensive plane and crew to fly aerial sensors, for example, explorers can mount them on cheaper drones and pilot them into previously unreachable areas. The resulting data can tell us more about the past, and the future, than ever before.

That’s the premise of Lost Cities with Albert Lin, a new TV series premiering on National Geographic on Sunday, October 20.

Lin, an engineer and National Geographic Explorer, uses cutting-edge tools to shed light on centuries-old cities in the most beautiful places on Earth. Ground-penetrating radar reveals buried structures without disturbing the landscape. A drone-mounted remote sensing method called LIDAR—short for "Light Detection and Ranging"—shoots lasers at objects to generate data, which Lin visualizes with 3D mapping software. The results suggest what the ruins probably looked like when they were new.

Albert Lin and crew in Peru
Thomas Hardy, Adan Choqque Arce, Joseph Steel, Duncan Lees, Albert Lin, and Alonso Arroyo launch the LIDAR drone at Wat'a in Peru.
National Geographic

“It’s like a window into a world that we’ve never had before,” Lin tells Mental Floss. “It’s shooting millions of laser pulses per second through a distance of air. By digitally removing the top layer of everything above the ground—trees, brush, cacti—you’re washing away the past. All of the sudden you’re left with these fingerprints—experiments in how we organized ourselves through time.”

For the six-episode series, Lin and the expert storytelling team were dispatched to the South Pacific, the Middle East, the Andes, the Arctic, and other destinations. Lin explains that while most of the sites are known to archaeologists, they’ve never been so precisely mapped in three-dimensional detail.

In the first episode, Lin travels to Nan Madol, an enigmatic complex of temples and other structures on the Micronesian island of Pohnpei. With the help of local researchers and indigenous leaders, Lin and the team scan the ruins and digitally erase trees, water, and forest undergrowth to unveil the complex's former grandeur.

“Technology and innovation have always been that gateway to go beyond the threshold, and see what’s around the corner,” Lin says. “Seeing these worlds for the first time since they were left, it’s almost like reversing the burning of the library of Alexandria. We can take the synthesis of knowledge of all these watershed moments of our human journey, and imagine a better future.”

Lost Cities With Albert Lin premieres Sunday, October 20 at 10/9c and resumes on Monday, October 21 at 10/9c on National Geographic.

8 Ways Science Can Boost Your Halloween Fun

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Halloween is all about embracing the supernatural, but science shouldn't entirely fall by the wayside during the spookiest of holidays. Here are a few ways it can actually improve your holiday, from making trick-or-treating easier to fooling your brain into thinking you're eating tasty treats even though you're nibbling on candy cast-offs.

1. Slow the decomposition of your Halloween jack-o'-lantern.

A Halloween display of five jack-o-lanterns
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You don't have to be an expert gardener to keep your jack-o'-lantern looking fresh all Halloween season long. While scouting out pumpkins, pick hard, unblemished ones and steer clear of those with watery dark spots. These splotches indicate frost damage.

Hold off on carving until right before Halloween so your gourds won't rot—but if you can't resist, try squirting their exteriors with lemon juice after you're done slicing and dicing. The acid inhibits pumpkin enzymes, which react with oxygen and cause browning. A light misting of bleach solution will help keep fungus at bay. Some apply vegetable oil or Vaseline to prevent shriveling and drying. We experimented with various techniques in this video.

For extra TLC, you might even want to bring your jack-o'-lanterns in at night if temperatures dip; if you live in a hot and humid area, extend its life by placing it in the fridge overnight. Try using glow sticks or LED lights instead of flesh-singeing candles.

2. Use apps to plan a treat-or-treating route.

Three children in Halloween costumes trick-or-treating
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Thanks to technology, trick-or-treaters (and their hungry adult companions) can now scout out which neighbors are doling out the best candy and which are sticking with Tootsie Rolls, apples, and toothbrushes. Simply download the app for Nextdoor, the neighborhood-based social network, to check out an interactive "treat map" that lets users tag whether their home is handing out treats, and what that treat is.

Since safety is far more important than sugar, guardians should also consider adding a tracking app to their arsenal come Halloween, especially if their kid's venturing out alone. The Find My Family, Friends, Phone app gives the real-time locations of trick-or-treaters, provides alerts for when they turn home, and also comes with a "panic" button that provides emergency contact details when pressed.

3. Optimize your candy's flavor (even if it's SweeTarts).

Hard candies and gummies strewn across a table
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Not crazy about this year's Halloween loot? Fool yourself into thinking those black licorice pieces and peanut chews taste better than they actually do by eating them after you scarf down the chocolate and Sour Patch Kids. According to a 2012 study published in Psychological Science, being aware that these items of candy are your very last candies actually tricks the brain into appreciating them more (and thus thinking they're tastier than they really are).

Meanwhile, a 2013 study from the same journal found that creating a candy-eating ritual enhances flavor and overall satisfaction. Nibble the ridged edges off a Reese's peanut butter cup before tackling the creamy center, sort the M&Ms by color, and take your time unwrapping a chocolate bar.

4. Create a DIY fog machine with carbon.

Dry ice in a glass bowl
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Save money at Party City by creating your own fog machine at home. When dropped in water, dry ice—or frozen carbon dioxide—creates a gas that's a combination of carbon dioxide and water vapor, but looks like the fog you'd see rolling through a haunted graveyard [PDF].

5. Eat sort-of-heart-healthy Halloween candy.

A stack of dark chocolate chunks on a dark stone background
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Halloween candy isn't always bad for you. While shopping for this year's trick-or-treat bounty, steer clear of sugary confections and milk chocolate mini-bars. Opt for dark chocolate treats instead. Research suggests that our gut microbes ferment the antioxidants and fiber in cocoa, creating heart-healthy anti-inflammatory compounds. Plus, dark chocolate or cocoa also appears to help lower blood pressure for people with hypertension, decrease bad cholesterol, and stave off cardiovascular disease and diabetes, among other benefits.

6. Analyze data on Halloween candy trends and give the people what they want.

Lollipops
5second/iStock via Getty Images

Thanks to data science, you can make sure you're giving out the best treats on the block. Bulk candy retailer CandyStore.com combed through 10 years of data (2007 to 2016, with a particular focus on the months leading up to Halloween) to gauge America's top-selling sweets. They created an interactive map to display their results, which includes the top three most popular Halloween handouts in each state and Washington, D.C. Be prepared for plenty of stoop-side visitors and adorable photo ops.

7. Bake better Halloween treats with chemistry.

Frosted Halloween cookies shaped like ghosts and pumpkins
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Cooking is essentially chemistry—and depending on your technique, you can whip up chewy, fluffy, or decadent Halloween treats according to taste.

Folding chunks of chilled butter into your dough will give you thick, cake-like cookies, as will swapping baking soda for baking powder. When butter melts, its water converts into gas, which leaves lots of tiny holes. If the butter flecks in question are colder and larger, they'll leave bigger air pockets. As for the baking powder, it produces carbon dioxide gas both when it's mixed into the dough and when it's heated. For an extra boost in texture, you can also try adding more flour.

Prefer chewier cookies? Start out with melted butter in the dough, and stick with plain old baking soda.

And for extra-fragrant and flavorful baked goods, opt to use dark sugars—like molasses, honey, and brown sugar—because they're filled with glucose and fructose instead of plain old sucrose. As cookies bake, they undergo two processes: caramelization, in which the sugar crystals liquefy into a brown soup; and the Maillard reaction, a chemical reaction between the dough's proteins and amino acids (flour, egg, etc.) and the reducing sugars that causes tasty browning.

8. Take deep breaths to stay calm in haunted houses.

A brown-haired woman in a red polka dot blouse standing with a frightened expression next to a spider web.
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Halloween can be tough for people with anxiety or low thresholds for fear. While visiting a haunted house or watching a scary movie, remember to take deep breaths, which fends off the body's flight-or-fight response, and reframe your anxiety in your mind as "excitement." It's also a good idea to schedule spine-chilling activities after an activity that triggers feel-good endorphins—say, after a walk to check out your neighbors' awesome Halloween displays.

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