Saturday, May 1, 2010

Serendipity and Sharin' Da Pity

Dear Friends,

Admit the following: there is something satisfying about a choir of British orphans. Inevitably, one can only blast “Food Glorious Food” and “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” so many times before otherwise friendly people start pulling one's hair. The Hard Taco song for May is called “Foundling Tokens,” and if you like orphan choirs and mixed metaphors, you can stick this one right up your alley.

Show some mercy, Guv’na, and listen to “Foundling Tokens.”

There is an historical basis for this song. In 1748, the shipbuilder Thomas Coram opened the Foundling Hospital in London as a refuge for deserted children. Mothers could abandon their babies at the door of the hospital, no questions asked, with just one stipulation. The mother had to leave some sort of trinket or token by which the child could be identified if the mother ever decided to come back for it. I learned about the Foundling Hospital because I accidentally ran a web search for "fondling Tolkien," and Google asked me if I meant "foundling token." Yes, Google! That is, of course, what I meant!

To summarize, I did not discover this topic inadvertently while looking up something repulsive. In contrast, a number of great discoveries and inventions have been made by accident. That brings us to this month's topic: Great moments of SERENDIPITY in history.

Charles Goodyear made this discovery while burning natural rubber with sulfur, hoping to create a pencil eraser that emitted a foul odor when used. The "reeking eraser" had been commissioned by a syndicate of wicked schoolmarms who were looking for a way to make the children of Akron suffer for making a writing error in the first place. To the chagrin of the wicked schoolmarms, Goodyear's new polymer was the key ingredient for making tire swings, which are basically the most fun things ever.

One morning, a Scottish dairy owner named Alexander Fleming knocked a cheese wheel into a vat of yogurt, and didn't have time to fish it out before leaving for his 8 am tee time. When Fleming returned to the farm that afternoon, the yogurt was gone and the cheese had expanded to fill the vat. He correctly surmised that the cheese mold had killed the bacterial culture in the yogurt, and that this would usher in a new era of antimicrobial medicine. He verified this hypothesis by demonstrating that he was unable to contract impetigo or syphilis while standing in the vat. 

In 1781, William Herschel was tracking a meteorite's descent to the Earth using a telescope of his own design. He was in the process of describing the crater created by the impact when he noticed that it contained a fixed bluish light source with a regular orbit. Hershel was flummoxed, not realizing that his sister was leaning on the telescope, and it was pointing back towards the heavens rather than the crater. When he reported his findings to the Royal Astronomical Society, they wrote him back, stating, "We regret that you were unable to tell Uranus from a hole in the ground."

Drs. Bausch and Lomb made this breakthrough in eye care when they accidentally crashed their lab carts into each other. The subsequent conversation was later documented by a bystander.

Bausch: Fool! You got your salt in my deionized water!
Lomb: Moron! You got your deionized water all over my salt!
Bystander: You both got all your stuff on my gas permeable lenses. And they feel... great!
Bausch: Eureka! We'll be rich!
Lomb: I agree: Eureka! Of course, I would have to give up my important research on cosmetically whitening salt.
Bausch: And I would have to divert my attention from my daughter's science fair project, "Does Water Make Subjects Less Thirsty Than Placebo?"
Lomb: Perhaps this bystander will commercialize our discovery, and use our names so this day will live on?
Bystander: I swear I will.
Bausch: To us! (All three raise a glass of water or placebo.)  

Christopher Columbus was looking for the New World, but mistakenly docked his ships in India. He met with the native religious leaders, and since Columbus assumed that he was in the Caribbean, he referred to them as Bahamans.  Columbus was a great admiral, but his calligraphy was dismal. When Queen Isabella read his dispatches, she thought he was calling the people "Baramans." The name stuck, even after Columbus realized he was in India, and even today, many natives of India still refer to themselves by this name.

With warmest regards,