Serendipitous discoveries

After musing on the wonders of serendipity yesterday, this Guardian headline caught my eye:

Oops, I invented the rocket! The explosive history of serendipity

The article is an enjoyable review of several scientific discoveries which came about by “happy accident.” This one is my favorite:

Dr Birgit Draeger, a German phytochemist, experienced scientific serendipity in a most unusual form. In the mid-90s, Dr Draeger was researching betulinic acid: a medicinal chemical from birch tree bark. At the time, to obtain betulinic acid you had to strip the bark away from the birch ā€“ and the tree didn’t take kindly to such treatment.

But Dr Draeger had a dream one night suggesting that, rather than stripping the bark from the birch, she should look at the bark of the plane tree, where she would find an alternative source of the same chemical.

The clever thing about plane trees is that, unlike birch, they shed their bark naturally. Upon investigation, Dr Draeger found that plane tree bark did indeed contain betulinic acid ā€“ 10 times more than in birch bark, in fact.

But there’s a rational explanation for this apparently mystical insight. Years before her dream, Dr Draeger had encountered the chemical structure of platantic acid, which is found in plane trees and shares several chemical features with betulinic acid. The two compounds are almost chemical cousins. Her brain had dug out this obscure memory and run with it while she slept.

I loved the Isaac Asimov quote at the article’s end. Just perfect.

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About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
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