That’s Science! Failures, mistakes and accidents (and why they aren’t always as terrible as we think)

“Catastrophic Failure” said my supervisor, and then he took us to the pub to drown our sorrows.

Source: Randy Glasbergen http://www.glasbergen.com/

Source: Randy Glasbergen http://www.glasbergen.com/

These are not the words you want to hear describing a scientific experiment. You dream to hear ‘ingenious’ ‘astounding’ and that forever sought-after ‘published’. But unfortunately this is not the outcome of all scientific endeavors. Like many others before me, my ill-fated masters research project ended in a mess of bad luck, poor decisions and disappointment (Wow, isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing?).

So yeah, s**t happens. As most scientists will tell you “That’s science!” So instead of spending an entire blog post bemoaning my utter failure, I thought I’d tell you about some other great scientific mistakes. The great part is that they weren’t actually complete failures at all, but ended up leading to some amazing scientific discoveries.


You are probably aware of this, as it’s the most famous scientific accident. While working at St Mary’s hospital in 1928, Alexander Fleming noticed something unusual about a discarded petri dish. The dish was contaminated with mold, which seemed to be eating away at the bacteria. A decade later this observation lead to the development of penicillin.

Post it notes

Dr. Spencer Silver was working at 3M in 1968, attempting to create a super strong adhesive. Luckily for officeworkers everywhere, he was not very successful – instead developing a “low-tack” adhesive that is reusable and pressure sensitive. And so the post-it note was born!

A very happy man

A very happy man


A very happy accident for some men – Viagra.

Initially, the compound in Viagra was synthesized for use against high blood pressure when the scientists noticed some rather unusual side effects. When this trial was abandoned, the researchers instead utilized the compound for use against erectile dysfunction.

Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite (and who's fortune established the Nobel Prize in 1895)

Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite (and who’s fortune established the Nobel Prize in 1895)


Now I thought my experiment was a bit of a setback, but it was nothing compared to what happened to Alfred Nobel (yes, that’s Mr. Nobel Prize). While trying to stabilise the very volatile liquid nitroglycerin, Nobel’s laboratory was rocked by a number of explosions, one of which proved fatal to his brother and a few others. The story goes that after these (quite major) setbacks, Nobel continued his work and stumbled upon silica, which when mixed with nitroglycerin made the explosive a malleable, stable paste.

So where would we be with out failures and mistakes! The moral of the story – things don’t always go to plan. But the great thing about science is that you learn something either way.

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