5 of Technology’s Most Beautiful Mistakes
Things don’t always turn out as planned, and sometimes that can be a blessing. In fact, some of the most profound discoveries in science and technology have come about by accident.
She or he who has never fallen has never climbed. It’s a saying that rings truer and truer the more life experience one gains. We live in an age of technological marvel, yet few may realize how much struggle and failure have contributed to the greatest, most useful, beautiful and groundbreaking technological achievements of our time. The following is a list of instances in which accidents or mistakes, small or large, have led to amazing technological progress (or just strange and funny circumstances).
Graduate Student Drops Silicon Chip, Accidentally Develops Smart Dust
In 2003, a UC San Diego graduate student won the $50,000 National Collegiate Inventors Competition grand prize for a discovery she had made by mistake. Jamie Link was attempting to create a multi-layer film of porous silicon when she accidentally dropped a silicon chip, which then shattered on the ground. The resulting shattered pieces seemed to hold properties that could help detect certain environmental factors by changing color. These “nanostructured chemical sensors” have since been used in environmental testing and research. (For more on nanotechnology breakthroughs, see 6 Cool Nanotechnologies That Could Change the World.)
"Smart dust" is an old concept with origins in twentieth century science fiction literature, and the term began circulating in academia increasingly during the 1990s (with the rise of the World Wide Web). It has variably referred to Link’s discovery/invention, as well as proposed fully functional computers that some believe will soon become ubiquitous to our daily lives.
Robot Chooses its Own Path While Inventor’s Back Is Turned
Artificial intelligence has hit some significant milestones in recent decades. A scientific experiment in 2002 had robots competing with one another in order to survive, in a sort of Darwinian artificial intelligence scenario. The robots would "prey" upon one another for energy (with various weapons and preying appendages mounted to their bodies) and compete with one another for resources. One robot, by the name of Gaak, had a giant fang that it used to suck electricity out of weaker robots.
At one point in the experiment, however, when Gaak was left unattended for about fifteen minutes, it did what nobody had anticipated — it escaped. Using its programmed "survival of the fittest" logic and reasoning, Gaak apparently slipped through a crevice and managed to make it all the way out to the parking lot, where it was nearly run over. The finder (who was visiting the event) returned the robot safely to its creator. (For more on artificial intelligence, see Don’t Look Back, Here They Come! The Advance of Artificial Intelligence.)
Professor Wins First Nobel Prize for Physics
Wilhelm Roentgen was a nineteenth century professor of physics who experimented with cathode ray tubes. He taught at many prestigious German institutions of higher learning, and chaired the physics departments at the University of Giessen, the University of Wurzburg and the University of Munich.
In 1895, while conducting an experiment that involved generating fluorescent light from gas-filled tubes, he noticed that after covering one of the tubes with black cardboard, a green light seemed to appear from out of nowhere across the room. He used the discovery to conduct further experiments, including taking one of the world’s first X-rays (of his wife’s hand). The news of the discovery quickly spread throughout the world, and Roentgen became the first Nobel Laureate in physics in 1901 for the discovery.
Repaired Telescope Sees Billions of Years Into the Past
The Hubble Telescope was ambitious, long-awaited, and plagued with trouble from the beginning. A number of issues (including funding, failed missions and public relations disasters) prevented NASA from getting the Hubble Space Telescope project off the ground and into orbit. And when it was finally launched in 1990, the pictures it sent back left many wondering if the whole ordeal had even been worth it.
An apparent “spherical aberration” in the telescope’s imaging system caused all of its pictures that it sent back to Earth to appear in a sort of blurry halo, which scientists eventually figured out was a problem of the image reflectors (that turned out to have been worn down or slightly over-polished) within the telescope. A mission was then planned and painstakingly rehearsed before being sent to fix the issue in 1994. The maintenance operation, which was scheduled to last up to four hours, finished in half that time. And when the new pictures were sent down to NASA headquarters, it quickly became apparent that the repair effort had been a huge success. Now, over two decades later, the Hubble Telescope continues to reveal amazing new things about our universe; including hints about its fascinating past.
"Noise" Interference Actually an Echo of the Big Bang
And speaking of both Nobel Prize winners and the early universe — Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, working for Bell Labs in 1964, had no idea what they had stumbled upon while troubleshooting a problem with their telescope. Data received from the instrument seemed to have been corrupted by excessive background noise, for which the two could not identify a source. They checked the six-meter Horn Antenna outside, and could only identify a bird's nest as the possible culprit. But when they removed it and the noise was still present, they remained stumped.
When word spread to nearby Princeton University, however, researchers quickly stepped in to see if the noise fit what they theorized to be an ancient residual effect of the Big Bang. There had been theories about photons forming after the Big Bang, when the dense matter of the universe began to cool, allowing particles to separate and merge with others to form new types of matter and, eventually, light.
The residual "noise" hitting the antenna turned out to be a match the hypothesis, and provided some of the most substantial validation for the Big Bang theory on record — earning Penzias and Wilson Nobel Laureate status.