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  • Isaac Asimov said it best:

  • The most exciting phrase to hear in science,

  • the one that heralds new discoveries,

  • is notEureka!’ butThat’s funny…”

  • Throughout the history of science,

  • many major discoveries came accidentally.

  • Sometimes they came from recognizing

  • potential in an unexpected product

  • or even a failed recipe’s waste

  • turning accident into serendipity.

  • Other times, discovery came out of pure

  • desperation from a seemingly dead-end experiment.

  • The entire modern chemical industry

  • can be attributed to an accidental discovery

  • that started with, well, garbage.

  • In the 19th century there was a new kind

  • of waste floating around: coal tar.

  • This was a stinky, sticky, awful muck

  • leftover from turning coal into gaslight.

  • Before others figured out they could

  • pave roads with the stuff,

  • it was pretty much useless.

  • Then the head of London’s Royal

  • College of Chemistry had an idea.

  • August Wilhelm von Hoffman noticed

  • that some of the stuff in coal tar was

  • similar to the stuff in known medicines.

  • If he got the chemistry right,

  • he thought, the world would have cheap,

  • easy cures for disease.

  • So, in 1856, he assigned 18-year-old

  • William Perkin to Team Coal Tar.

  • Perkin’s job was to try to turn the gunk into quinine.

  • Quinine was used to treat malaria,

  • but the drug had to be extracted

  • from tree bark, which was annoying

  • and time-consuming.

  • Perkin knew that quinine and coal

  • tar had similar chemical formulas.

  • So, he figured, take some of stuff

  • in coal tar that’s similar to quinine,

  • add some other stuff that looks like

  • little bits of quinine, remove some

  • useless byproducts, and voila, right?

  • Not so much.

  • Perkin’s first attempts got a

  • reddish-black powder instead

  • of off-white quinine crystals.

  • And so he made a couple changes and

  • tried again with a different coal tar

  • starting ingredient, thinking a more

  • simple formula would do the trick.

  • But wrong againinstead of off-white

  • he got an even blacker powder.

  • Oh well, wash it out with a little

  • alcohol and start over, right?

  • But wait, when he added the alcohol,

  • the black powder produced a breathtaking purple.

  • Perkin was inspired.

  • He somehow figured out this purple stuff could dye silk.

  • Perikin saw dollar signs.

  • At the time, purple-dyed fabrics were

  • made using exotic crushed snails, so only

  • the very wealthy could afford to wear purple.

  • Forget crushed snails,

  • Perkin just made a purple dye out of garbage!

  • Perkin called itmauveafter a French flower,

  • becausetrashy purpledidn’t sound appealing.

  • Dreaming of broad profit margins,

  • Perkin did what many entrepreneurs did:

  • he quit and started perhaps the

  • first artificial dye factory.

  • Within a few years, mauve

  • had influential fashion fans:

  • Queen Victoria and Napoleon III’s wife, Empress Eugénie.

  • A fashion craze known asmauve measles

  • eruptedsuddenly the middle class

  • could afford a color beyond drab brown,

  • off-white, or grey.

  • Perkin amassed a fortunate of over

  • 100 million in today’s dollars and

  • retired at ripe old age of 36.

  • On Perkin’s lead, chemical factories

  • sprang up, dumpster diving nature for

  • treasure, and this led to even more

  • profitable accidents.

  • In 1878, Constantin Fahlberg brought

  • his gunky coal tar work home with

  • himby not washing his hands.

  • At dinner one night he found his

  • bread incredibly sweet.

  • Fahlberg and his labmates realized

  • the source was a super-sweet

  • substance derived from coal tar

  • residue they called saccharin.

  • The accidental discoveries only grew in the 20th century.

  • In the late 1930s, Roy Plunkett at Dupont,

  • was working with refrigerant coolants

  • namedfluorinated-hydrocarbons”.

  • One day a new mix annoyingly solidified

  • into a powder that made stuff so slippery.

  • Plunkett had stumbled upon new material

  • called polytetrafluoroethylene,

  • which Dupont marketed as Teflon.

  • Teflon was awesome:

  • it coated metal for a no-stick surface.

  • Also, Teflon didn’t conduct electricity,

  • so it was great wire coating.

  • This led Father and son team

  • Bill and Bob Gore began slowly

  • stretching Teflon to make computer cables.

  • Bill and Bob discovered that Teflon didn’t

  • stretch evenly, making it hard to work with.

  • Frustrated, Bob yanked on a hunk

  • of heated Teflon that suddenly expanded

  • eight times its size.

  • Turns out this heated -hunk material,

  • was over 70% air, so it could breathe

  • easily while retaining the no-stick

  • properties of its Teflon parent.

  • And if you wove this into a fabric,

  • it proved fantastic for lightweight

  • raincoats that don’t wrap you in your own sauna.

  • You know this material as Gore-Tex®.

  • So much of what we enjoy in the modern

  • world came from accidental discoveries.

  • Be it fashion-craze-causing mauve,

  • sweeteners, Teflon, or Gore-Tex,

  • the chemists behind this stuff were smart

  • enough to recognize that they accidentally

  • stumbled onto something special.

  • In the process, these moments became

  • so much more than happy accidents.

  • They became discoveries that changed the world.

  • Hey chem-heads, thanks for watching.

  • If you want more Sam Kean,

  • check out a video he did for us on

  • whether mega sharks still exists.

  • And if you want history, check out

  • Five black chemists who changed the world.

  • And regardless, click that there subscribe

  • button for more chemistry goodness every week.

  • And a big thanks to the Chemical Heritage

  • Foundation for helping us out with this video.

Isaac Asimov said it best:

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    Eating posted on 2015/02/09
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