Big Bang


And the Nobel goes to…

Speaking of the universe, Nobel announcement week started off with a bang. A really big bang. Actually, a bigger bang than science ever measured or modelled. So big that Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess’ observations have changed the perception of the universe from one that is decelerating (and will eventually collapse under the weight of its own gravity) to one that appears to be endlessly expanding. Another example of science embracing failure as another fundamental tenet believed and tested is discarded with emergence of new and better data. Until even newer and even better data comes along…

Of course, the very genesis of the Nobel Prizes emerged from a bang with Alfred Nobel’s discovery of dynamite. The discovery left him a very rich man, but also a very disconsolate one for the power of destruction his invention had unleashed upon the world. After World War I, he felt so appalled at the horrors his powerful explosive had fuelled that he endowed the Prize as a way to do good with his money.

But not only was the terrifying use of dynamite not his intention, even discovering the compound was an accident. It is included in a piece by Newsweek on ‘Lucky Discoveries’

“It was the 1860s, and nitro-glycerine was a popular form of explosive, but it was completely unstable. That was an unfortunate problem for those trying to handle the substance, since it would unexpectedly blow up. Nobel, who owned a nitro-glycerine factory, knew it was worth trying to make the compound safer, so he started to test it. One day, while researching the explosive in his lab, he accidentally dropped a vial of it on the ground. When it didn’t explode, he realized it was because the substance had seeped into sawdust. The mixture essentially made nitro-glycerine more stable.”

They highlighted a dozen other examples of mistakes-gone-good including another Nobel winner, Penicillin (ie. Post-It Notes, Stainless Steel, Teflon, Penicillin, Play-Doh, Dynamite, Implantable Pacemaker, Microwave Ovens, Popsicle, Mauve, Saccharin, Smart Dust).