Isaac Newton watched an apple fall from a tree – a chance event – and asked why the apple fell straight down rather than sideways or even upwards. Image Credit: Stock photo/Pixabay

Serendipity is a happy accident. Scientific research is a precise, controlled analysis of various kinds of information. These two concepts may seem on polar ends of the spectrum, but when serendipity and science came together in history, some of the greatest discoveries took place.

Click start to play today’s Spell It and find out how ‘chancing’ has helped scientists reveal new possibilities.

According to the 2004 reference book, Scientific and Technological Thinking, some psychologists estimate that between 30 to 50 per cent of all scientific discoveries are accidental in some sense. Here are a few discoveries that clearly were serendipitous:

1. Penicillin

Perhaps the most famous accidental discovery occurred in 1928, when Scottish physician Alexander Fleming was investigating a group of Petri dishes on his cluttered workbench. His dishes contained bacteria called staphylococcus aureus, but Fleming noticed that one of his dishes had become contaminated by a mould, and that there was a clear area around the mould growth – definitely unexpected. Instead of cleaning out the dish or ignoring the contamination, Fleming decided to ask ‘why’. He further studied the dish and discovered the mould was making an antibiotic that killed the bacteria around it. Fleming named the antibiotic penicillin, and went on to save thousands of lives with his infection-fighting discovery.

2. Gravity

Another famous example revolves around Isaac Newton’s formulation of gravitational theory in 1665. He watched an apple fall from a tree – a chance event – and asked why the apple fell straight down rather than sideways or even upwards. Newton’s theory found that the force that makes the apple fall, or that keeps our feet on the ground, is the same force that drives the moon in its orbit around Earth, or the planets around the sun. Newton took another 20 years to publish his detailed theory of gravity, but he apparently later revisited the apple tree that sparked the revolutionary idea.

3. Blasting gelatin

Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel is famous for his discovery of dynamite. But he also invented blasting gelatin – a substance as powerful as dynamite but much safer to handle – partly thanks to luck. One day, Nobel cut his finger on a piece of glass at work. To stop the bleeding and protect his finger, he applied collodion – a flexible, syrupy solution of nitrocellulose that works as a liquid bandage. At night, Nobel couldn’t sleep because his finger kept throbbing in pain. While absently looking at it, he thought about the problem he was having at work – he was trying to create a powerful explosive using nitrocellulose and nitroglycerine, but the two would not combine. Nobel then realised that collodion would be the perfect bridge between the two substances, and he was right!

What do you think of these serendipitous discoveries? Play today’s Spell It and tell us at