[FOUNTAIN]Rewards of happenstance

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[FOUNTAIN]Rewards of happenstance

Friedrich August von Kekule (1829-1896) was a famous German chemist who first proposed that the structure of organic matter was a bonded chain.

The chemist got his fundamental idea on the molecular structure of organic matter after seeing atoms dancing in pairs in a dream he had while taking a nap on a bus in London, where he was a resident, in 1854.

Not long after the vision he completed the "closed-chain" or "ring" theory of benzene. In 1910, Chaim Azriel Weizmann (1874-1952) by chance discovered a bacteria that transforms sugar to acetone. Since acetone was necessary for manufacturing ammunition, the discovery contributed largely to the Allied force's victory in World War I. Weizmann later became the first president of Israel.

There are many cases where historically significant scientific discoveries resulted from coincidence. In several cases mythical features were added to the stories.

The British scientist, Alexander Fleming (1881-1955), reportedly stumbled onto penicillin after noticing that a mold, which by chance landed on a staphylococcus culture plate was restraining the growth of the bacteria. Experts say this anecdote is an exaggeration.

The story about James Watt (1749-1823), who invented the steam engine after watching as a child the lid of a pot being rattled by the water boiling inside is probably not true. And the story that Edward Jenner (1749-1823), who discovered vaccinations, first tested his theory on his son, may be educational but it is far from being the truth.

Tanaka Koichi, who received the Nobel Prize this year in chemistry, confessed that his important discovery resulted from wrongfully mixing solutions during an experiment. The Japanese chemist applied for a job at Sony after college but was rejected after the job interview. Most likely the person who was in charge of employment at Sony at the time is regretting the decision not to hire Tanaka.

President Kim Dae-jung's Nobel Peace Prize has become the object of controversy and political backbiting, adding to the envy Koreans must feel toward Japan, whose accomplishments are continuously awarded by the international community.

Our priority should be increasing investment in basic sciences and improving the research environment. Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), the French chemist who contributed to modern methods to prevent diseases, once said coincidence happens to those who are well prepared for it.



The writer is a deputy international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.


by Noh Jae-hyun

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