The blunders, oversights, gaffes and miscalculations that shaped history
Across scientific history, there have been many, many mistakes. Most result in catastrophe, tragedy or very large amount of tidying up, but a select few resulted in inventions or scientific breakthroughs that changed the world for the better.
Let’s start with Mustard Gas. As I’m sure most of you know, mustard gas is a highly toxic chemical that was last used in the 1980’s by Suddam Hussein, but was actually first experimented with in the early 1880’s. In 1882, a French scientist with the very easy to pronounce name of César-Mansuète Despretz began to experiment with a mixture of sulphur dichloride and ethylene in a bid to invent an easy solution to rid the third world of crop-eating locusts. After deciding that the solution was far too toxic for its intended purpose, he shelved the idea, most likely saving his creation ridding the third world of the third world itself.
A few years later, in 1860, the idea was picked up by British chemist Frederick Guthrie, later earning itself a place in a scientific paper published by Viktor Meyer in 1886. The final tweak came in 1913 with Hans Thatcher Clarke, a Brit operating in Berlin at the time, who made the incredibly dangerous error of dropping a mixture of the newly-edited chemical onto the floor of his lab. After picking up the mixture with the intention of disposing of it, Clarke was called by another scientist in the lab, causing the beaker to slip from his fingers, almost killing him and everyone else in the room. While Clarke lay in a hospital bed for almost three months, his assistant Emil Fischer made the discovery known to the German army, and a production line was set up almost immediately. The first deployment of mustard gas occurred in Ypres in October 1917, and maybe never would have happened without the actions of an overzealous scientist who just wanted to get Clarke’s attention.
The cure for scurvy
The discovery of a cure for scurvy, although not strictly a mistake, did spend a large span of time being reported incorrectly. English Navy surgeon Dr James Lind is widely credited for the discovery of the cure for scurvy in lime juice, but in reality, his conclusion was barking up quite the wrong tree. Indeed, his hypothesis was that acid of any kind could be used, rather than those in fruit, and the medicinal benefits of fruit in general were not even considered. It wasn’t until after Lind was dead that Western physicians identified vitamin C deficiency as the real cause of the disease. On a side note, Native Americans and Indians, who were thought to be primal and uncultured by scientists, had been aware of the real cause of the disease for centuries, leaving Lind’s credit completely unjustified, if you ask me.
The discovery of penicillin is a common tale told on the topic of mistakes in science, wherein the extremely unhygienic conditions of his lab combined with a month-long holiday lead to the discovery of a bacteria-killing mould in one of his petri dishes. Despite the discovery, Fleming found the mould difficult to produce and impossible to stabilize and, as a result, gave up on the exploration and moved on to other matters. It was only when, in 1939, Jewish biochemist and Nazi Germany escapee Ernst Boris Chain came across a reference to Flemings discovery tat he idea was picked up again. He and Australian Howard Florey, over the span of two years, were able to isolate, concentrate and purify the mould well enough for animal trials. In another twist of fate, the guinea-pigs that the two had requested for testing were unavailable, so mice were used. What the pair would not have known is that penicillin is toxic to guinea-pigs, and, had their request gone through, the true effects of the mould would have remained unknown for a much longer time. Furthermore, the excess penicillin (which was only in excess due to the small size of the mice who were given guinea-pig size doses) found in the mice’s urine proved that the drug could pass through the body, another gamechanging fact.
Lost In Space
Now this one’s just for fun. In 1999, a team of Lockheed Martin engineers worked with NASA to build a Mars orbiter satellite. The only hitch? The Lockheed Martin team used the English system of measurement in their calculations whereas the rest of the team at NASA used the metric system. The result? The spacecrafts navigation coordinates were unable to be sent to the correct lab, the orbiter was lost, and $125 million was down the drain.
So, there you have it. There are many more examples, but these are a few of the most notable. Mistakes in science are fairly commonplace, but whether they result in an antibiotic, a cure for a disease or a loss of 125 million dollars is another story.