(Roughly) Daily

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny’”*…

 

Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin is commonly used as an example of serendipity in science

Scientific folklore is full of tales of accidental discovery, from the stray Petri dish that led Alexander Fleming to discover penicillin to Wilhelm Röntgen’s chance detection of X-rays while tinkering with a cathode-ray tube.

That knowledge often advances through serendipity is how scientists, sometimes loudly, justify the billions of dollars that taxpayers plough into curiosity-driven research each year. And it is the reason some argue that increasing government efforts to control research — with an eye to driving greater economic or social impact — are at best futile and at worst counterproductive.

But just how important is serendipity to science? Scientists debating with policymakers have long relied on anecdotal evidence. Studies rarely try to quantify how much scientific progress was truly serendipitous, how much that cost or the circumstances in which it emerged.

Serendipity can take on many forms, and its unwieldy web of cause and effect is difficult to constrain. Data are not available to track it in any meaningful way. Instead, academic research has focused on serendipity in science as a philosophical concept.

The European Research Council aims to change that…

On the heels of yesterday’s post on the history of dice, and the way they evolved over the centuries to be “fairer”– to favor chance– another post on luck…  more specifically in this case, on whether it’s all that it’s cracked up to be.  Scientists often herald the role of chance in research; a project in Britain aims to test that popular idea with evidence: “The serendipity test.”

* Isaac Asimov

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As we contemplate contingency, we might send elaborately-engineered birthday greetings to George Washington Gale Ferris Jr.; he was born on this date in 1859.  An engineer and inventor, he had built a successful career testing and inspecting metals for railroads and bridge builders when…

… in 1891, the directors of the World’s Columbian Exposition [to be held in 1893] issued a challenge to American engineers to conceive of a monument for the fair that would surpass the Eiffel Tower, the great structure of the Paris International Exposition of 1889. The planners wanted something “original, daring and unique.” Ferris responded with a proposed wheel from which visitors would be able to view the entire exhibition, a wheel that would “Out-Eiffel Eiffel.” The planners feared his design for a rotating wheel towering over the grounds could not possibly be safe.

Ferris persisted. He returned in a few weeks with several respectable endorsements from established engineers, and the committee agreed to allow construction to begin. Most convincingly, he had recruited several local investors to cover the $400,000 cost of construction. The planning commission of the Exposition hoped that admissions from the Ferris Wheel would pull the fair out of debt and eventually make it profitable. [source]

It carried 2.5 million passengers before it was finally demolished in 1906.  But while the Fair’s promoters hopes were fulfilled– the Ferris Wheel was a windfall– Ferris claimed that the exhibition management had robbed him and his investors of their rightful portion of the nearly $750,000 profit that his wheel brought in.  Ferris spent two years in litigation, trying (unsuccessfully) to recover his investment.  He died despondent and nearly bankrupt (reportedly of typhoid, though some suggest that it was suicide) in 1896.

The original 1893 Chicago Ferris Wheel

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Written by LW

February 14, 2018 at 1:01 am

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