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August 20, 2012 | by  | in Opinion |
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Science—What’s It Up To?

Doing science by fucking shit up

People seem to have this perspective that scientific discoveries are an intricate magic created by genius wizards, however the truth is not quite so glamourous. Though there are many amazing discoveries that are the result of hard work and incredible intelligence and logic, there are also some pretty fantastic fuckups or accidents that result in important discoveries.

On a September morning in 1928, Alexander Fleming sat at his work bench at St. Mary’s Hospital in Scotland after having just returned from a vacation with his family. Before he had left on vacation, Fleming had piled a number of his Petri dishes to the side of the bench so that someone else could use his work bench while he was away. Many of the dishes had been contaminated with various cultures. Fleming placed each of these in an ever growing pile in a tray of Lysol (disinfectant). He was sorting through the pile when his former assistant, stopped by to visit. Fleming took this opportunity to bitch about how hard it was not having an assistant. To demonstrate, Fleming rummaged through the large pile of plates and pulled out several that had remained safely above the Lysol. Had there not been so many, each would have been submerged in Lysol, killing the bacteria to make the plates safe to clean and then reuse.

While picking up one particular dish to show Pryce, Fleming noticed something strange about it. While he had been away, a mould had grown on the dish. That in itself was not strange. However, this particular mould seemed to have killed the Staphylococcus aureus that had been growing in the dish. Fleming realised that this mould had potential. Though he identified the mould (Penicillium) with help from a mycologist, he wasn’t able to isolate the active element that was killing the bacteria. He called it Penicillin, published a paper on it and moved on.


In 1940, the second year of World War II, two scientists at Oxford University, Australian Howard Florey and German refugee Ernst Chain began working with penicillin. Using new chemical techniques, they were able
to produce a brown powder that kept its antibacterial power for longer than a few days.

Needing the new drug immediately for the war front, mass production started quickly. The availability of penicillin during World War II saved many lives that otherwise would have been lost due to bacterial infections in even minor wounds. Penicillin also treated diphtheria, gangrene, pneumonia, syphilis and tuberculosis.

All of this was possible because he didn’t do the dishes before he left, something I think we can all take away from this story. Who knows what fantastic discovery is going to appear the next time you fuck up?

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