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In Defense of Playing Around in the Lab

Experimental Error, dice
Credit: G. Grullón/Science

My friend Jesse is a minor celebrity in the field of plasmonics. This is the part of the article where I should explain what "plasmonics" means, but even though he described it to me over lunch at the University of Southern California a couple of weeks ago, and even though I felt I really kinda almost understood it at the time, I can now describe plasmonics as easily as I can juggle otters. (I can't actually juggle otters. I guess the analogy only makes sense if you know that.)

So, you will not find a description of plasmonics here. What I found fascinating, though, was Jesse's tale of how he devised the breakthrough plasmonic nanoparticle array that earned him fame, adulation, and (Congratulations, Jesse!) freedom from his 9-year Ph.D. It was, quite simply, an accident. While working on something else, he did something he didn't intend to do. The result, as well as I can describe it, was very plasmonic.

While flying a kite in a lightning storm, Benjamin Franklin discovers the concept of electricity, immediately declaring, 'This story is apocryphal!'

Later that day, making sure to hit all of the cultural hotspots of Los Angeles, I stopped into the Page Museum, home to millions of Paleolithic fossils pulled from the La Brea Tar Pits. (I guess technically that's only two hotspots: the Page Museum and Lunch with Jesse. Is California Pizza Kitchen a hot spot?)

CREDIT: Hal Mayforth

And what was the buzz at the Page Museum about?  Another accident.

In 2006, the art museum next door decided to add an underground parking structure and a backhoe struck a mammoth. Those events led to the unintended discovery of 23 crates worth of Paleolithic goodies. The bounty, called Project 23, has kept Page Museum scientists busy ever since.

Most workplaces try to discourage accidents, and with good reason: Accidents aren't suited to all professions. A surgeon's accident merits a lawsuit. A pilot who inadvertently confuses feet with inches, even if he or she discovers something wonderful as a result, will be in no position to share the discovery with this world. And you never hear a chef say, "I meant to add a cup of pastry flour, but I added a cup of powdered dish detergent instead, and the results were amazing."

In science, of course, most mistakes are also bad. But sometimes they're good. And sometimes they're not merely good; they are extraordinary. Occasionally—but more times than seems likely to be, well, an accident—mistakes are even crucial to discovery. Just look at this list of famous historical scientific accidents and the discoveries they spawned:

•1666: Sir Isaac Newton discovers the concept of gravity when, while relaxing under an apple tree, he is suddenly struck on the head by a jealous Edmond Halley.

•1752: While flying a kite in a lightning storm, Benjamin Franklin discovers the concept of electricity, immediately declaring, "This story is apocryphal!"

•1796: Edward Jenner, attempting to develop a smallpox vaccine, instead invents a new method for spreading autism. Is that basically what happened, Jenny McCarthy? Is it?

•1866: Having spent years forcibly breeding pea plants, Gregor Mendel stumbles upon the concept of genetic inheritance. Though celebrated as the father of classical genetics, Mendel is still known as a pervert within the pea community.

•1878: Researcher Constantin Fahlberg forgets to wash his hands after lab work and wonders why his dinner rolls taste sweet, thus discovering (a) the chemical saccharin and (b) not hygiene.

•1909: Chemist Robert Millikan performs his famous "oil drop experiment," in which a single droplet of low vapor pressure oil, meant to burn for only one day, lasts a full 8 days. (His findings significantly impact the field of alchemy, which had recently perfected the transformation of gold into a type of milk chocolate that's really not very good.)

•1928: A careless Alexander Fleming leaves cultures of staphylococci sitting on his lab bench during a vacation. Upon returning, he discovers that a Penicillum fungus has grown, mutated into human form, and started a successful sorghum farm outside Derbyshire, England.

•1953: James Watson and Francis Crick find themselves looking over Rosalind Franklin's shoulder at just the right moment. Oh, how happy accidents lead to fame and glory!

•2004: Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov manufacture graphene using nothing but Scotch tape and a graphite pencil. They later receive the Nobel Prize, along with their co-author, Angus MacGyver.

•2006: An astronomer at NASA inadvertently lists the planets without Pluto, then claims the omission was deliberate. Sources blame an incorrectly memorized mnemonic device: "My Very Excellent Mother Just … Something. Uh, Nuts."

•2009: Graduate student Toby Soper unintentionally discards a test tube containing the results of 2 years of research, leading to the discovery that graduate school sucks.

•2012: Physicists at CERN, endeavoring to discover a faster-than-light particle, accidentally discover absolutely nothing at all.

If you think about it, the history of science is the history of accidents. Even the Page Museum  is a museum of accidents—they only have those awesome dire wolf fossils because a pack of dire wolves happened to say, "Hey, a tasty animal stuck in tar. WAIT A MINUTE. ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME? I'M STUCK IN THE TAR TOO!"

The more stories of beneficial accidents I hear, the more I think that the scientific method should be Observation, Hypothesis, Experiment, Holy Crap I Knocked Something Over, Huh, This Is Unexpected, Will My Grant Cover This?

But, thinking ourselves to be disciplined scientists, we too often try to avoid accidents. We plan our experiments scrupulously, and if one tiny element goes wrong, we curse ourselves for not being more careful. Diligence is, of course, where hard data comes from—but it's not always where creativity comes from. If you wake up saying, "I know what I intend to think about today," you probably won't end the day with a new idea.

Beyond just giving the Hazardous Material Spill Kit a good workout, accidents force you to solve problems with limited resources, to use what you know to synthesize new concepts. And occasionally, one of those concepts is the magic you-got-peanut-butter-on-my-chocolate-bar moment.

So in your lab today, make a mistake. Try something that shouldn't work. Sit under an apple tree. Dig an underground parking garage. If nothing else, someday the story will sound great on your Wikipedia page.