Essential Intellectual References Weekly #8

Two easily avoidable mistakes that changed humanity forever.

Zack S. Westby Zack S. West

Earlier this year, I was involved in a hit and run car accident. And by that I mean, I ran someone over and then drove away at great speeds. A few months later, I started feeling mildly guilty, and went back through the news reports to find out just how horrible a person I am. Turns out, the victim was serial rapist, and his organs went to three different orphans. While I am interested to see whether the children grow up to exhibit similar traits to the donor, the anecdote is a flat out fabrication, so we'll never know. On the other end, it gives me a great segue to talk about happy accidents.

It's amazing, when you look back on it, how many essential discoveries of humanity were made incidentally by people trying to discover something useless or impossible. Teflon was invented while trying to innovate refrigeration. The potato chip was invented by an irritated chef. Heck, plastic was originally just supposed to be insulation. But we're not here to talk about those people. We're here to talk about two scientists who were just flat out irresponsible, and the world will never stop thanking them.


Alexander Fleming and Penicillin

I'm sure a lot of people know this story, but that is because it's the best story. No stupid mistake has ever effected the world so broadly, and so many people individually, as the 'invention' of penicillin. The closest equivalent would be if someone stepped on a thousand rakes in a row, and then the internet existed.

Alexander Fleming was a brilliant Scottish biologist and pharmacologist who had made several very influential discoveries before the year 1928. Despite being invited to all the cool scientist parties and having a ton of followers on whatever the 20's equivalent of twitter was, he could not keep his laboratory clean. Apparently, being so far from Mexico, Scotland didn't have enough cleaning ladies to go around.

And thank relativity for that. Not because Scotland shouldn't have Mexicans, but rather because if someone had bothered tidying, everything about the world as we now know it would be different. The fact that Alexander Fleming had the same feelings toward his revolutionary experiments that I have about my dishes may have saved more lives than any other single event in history. Excluding Jesus, I guess, if you swing that way.

Point is, he didn't clean up, and the first antibiotic was discovered. He woke up one morning, noticed that the mold growing on one of his bacteria covered petri dishes was killing the bacteria. Normally, mold destroying your experiments is a bad thing, but in this case, clearly less so. Suddenly, diseases that were previously fatal could be cured in hours.

Imagine that. Waking up and realizing that, at the bottom of your rank-ass trash bin laid the cure for cancer. Of course, our overuse of antibiotics has created several strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria. So, while penicillin allowed sailors to screw as many prostitutes as they wanted without consequences, it probably also killed us all indirectly with ultra-syphilis.


Percy LeBaron Spencer and the Microwave Oven

(Ed- That's not Dr. Spencer, just to prevent any confusion)

If you don't know how your microwave works, here's a brief explanation. That little box throws lots of electromagnetic radiation at your burrito. Instead of conducting that energy like copper would, the burrito molecules just vibrate. Eventually, they've vibrated enough so that your previously frozen burrito is now warm and semi-edible. That's as simple as I can make it without saying "Press button, food hot."

However, microwave radiation wasn't originally used for cooking. In fact, when the magnetron (the radiation gun that makes the molecules vibrate) was first invented, it was used for submarine detection. Speaking of which, I detect that my submarine sandwich is warm. Hold on a sec.

Thank you for waiting. That was delicious… ish. Never been a fan of microwaved leftovers. But that doesn't take away from it's impact, and certainly has nothing to do with Percy LeBaron Spencer, who is the person we're here to talk about.

You see, Percy worked for the Raytheon Company studying magnetrons. And while working for them, he did what anyone would do when working with extremely powerful radiation guns- he went into the lab completely unprotected, with a chocolate bar in his pocket just in case he got hungry. As an aside, this story takes place in 1945, the year we used the atomic bomb for the first time. Just wanted to put the radiation situation in context… ation.

So, standing next to the cousin of Little Boy, Percy felt something strange in his pants. After his first three guesses proved incorrect, he checked his pocket, finding the melted remnants of his chocolatey snack. Inspired, and probably a little hungry, Percy decided to point the magnetron at some popcorn and VOILA, the first microwave. Because a scientist was hungry and didn't wear protection. Which, incidentally, is also how Percy conceived two of his three children.

Final note: If you decide to tell all your friends that popcorn was actually the first thing intentionally microwaved, make sure to bring up that it's unintentional predecessor was chocolate. And probably at least some of a scientist.