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Discoveries (and Inventions)

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54735.  Thu Feb 23, 2006 7:39 am Reply with quote

Huge subject – and one which everyone enjoys.

I think if we can't do a whole programme on this we should pack up and go home!

55126.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 7:09 am Reply with quote

Serendippity Doo-dah

Serendipity is the process of discovering things by a combination of accident and sagacity. What follows is information discovered serendipitously whilst researching serendipity.

'Serendipity' emerged from a June 2004 survey of 1,000 linguists as one of the 10 hardest English words to translate, the others being:


The issue is over translating the full implication of a word, including connotations and overtones. There was also an international list, which included:

Shlimazl (Yiddish for 'a chronically unlucky person')
Klloshar (Albanian for 'loser')
Pochemuchka (Russian for a child who's constantly asking questions - a useful word to have, it seems to me) (pron: potchy-mooshka).

An example of a concept that's easy to express in some languages but not English is this question: "Of the twelve episodes in this series of QI, is this the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc?" because we lack a descriptor for ordinal numbers ("Whichth show is this?"). In German, for example, the word is wievelte.

(Edit: my German correspondent confirms this - "Die wievielte show in
der serie is das?" means "The whichth show in the series is this?").

Last edited by Flash on Wed Mar 01, 2006 5:05 am; edited 1 time in total

55131.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 7:18 am Reply with quote

The word 'serendipity' was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754:

I once read a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right—now do you understand serendipity? One of the most remarkable instances of this accidental sagacity (for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for, comes under this description) was of my Lord Shaftsbury, who happening to dine at Lord Chancellor Clarendon's, found out the marriage of the Duke of York and Mrs. Hyde, by the respect with which her mother treated her at table.

(Letter to Horace Mann)

Serendip was the Arabic name for Sri Lanka.

55139.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 7:35 am Reply with quote

Some well-known examples of serendipitous discovery:

Gelignite, by Alfred Nobel

Penicillin, by Alexander Fleming (pace Ernest Duchesne, Clodomiro Twight, and generations of Bedouins) (Fleming noticed a halo of inhibition of bacterial growth around a contaminant blue-green mould on a Staphylococcus plate culture and concluded that the mould was releasing a substance that was inhibiting bacterial growth).

Post-It Notes, by Spencer Silver and Arthur Fry. (The original adhesive used in Post-it notes was invented in 1968 by Spencer Silver, a 3M researcher. While attempting to design a strong adhesive, he instead developed an adhesive that was very weak. No immediate application was apparent, until 1974 when a colleague, Arthur Fry, conceived of using the adhesive to create bookmarks while contemplating a hymnal in his church choir. Initial prototypes were available in 1977).

The rings of Uranus (discovered through observations made from the Kuiper Airborne Observatory because they occulted (blocked from view) a star as Uranus passed between the Earth and the star).

The Americas, by Columbus (he was looking for Asia).

55145.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 7:51 am Reply with quote

I'm going to post this stuff into the outer forum to see if they come up with anything.

55151.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 7:58 am Reply with quote

Microwaves: Percy Spencer walked in front of a magnetron with a chocolate bar in his pocket and discovered it had melted.

55155.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 8:05 am Reply with quote

Discoveries and inventions (though probably not serendipity) links with the discussion of vending machines at
post 54488

55251.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 11:27 am Reply with quote

Flash wrote:

The Americas, by Columbus (he was looking for Asia).

More of a redishcovery, shurely?

55256.  Fri Feb 24, 2006 11:36 am Reply with quote

Perhaps, but I think this statement: "Columbus' discovery of the Americas was serendipitous" is true whichever way you cut it - his discovery of them was serendipitous, even if other people's discovery of them may or may not have been.

56496.  Thu Mar 02, 2006 6:41 am Reply with quote

The discovery of planets & what-not is generally not serendipitous these days - astronomers seem to work out that they ought to exist first, and then go looking for them.

Planet X was the name given to a large hypothetical planet orbiting beyond Neptune, so far away as to be virtually undetectable because it reflected so little light. It was thought to exist because of apparent discrepancies in the orbits of the gas giants, but these have now been accounted for by more accurate measurements of the mass of the planets by the Pioneer and Voyager probes (the old measures were about 1% low).

Pluto was found serendipitously, incidentally - a by-product of the search for Planet X.

There may yet be a Planet X, albeit a different one than the one they were looking for before, something Earth-sized at the outer edge of the Kuiper Belt.

Bryson has this, but I can't find out where he gets it from:

A few astronomers continue to think that there may yet be a Planet X out there - a real whopper, perhaps as much as ten times the size of Jupiter, but so far out as to be invisible to us. (It would receive so little sunlight tha tit would have almost none to reflect.) The idea is that it wouldn’t be a conventional planet like Jupiter or Saturn - it's much too far away for that; we're talking perhaps 4.5 trillion miles - but more like a sun that never quite made it. Most star systems in the cosmos are binary (double-starred), which makes our solitary sun a slight oddity.

p42 in the paperback edition of A Short History of Everything

Chris adds this:

Unfortunately, the last remark - about most stars being binary - was possibly overturned a few weeks ago. Science, eh? It was thought to be true, but it turned out that they just couldn't see the faint single ones:

... which I think is unfortunately just too technical for us to do anything with.

56506.  Thu Mar 02, 2006 7:00 am Reply with quote

There is this, though:

Suppose our Sun was not alone but had a companion star. Suppose that this companion star moved in an elliptical orbit, its solar distance varying between 90,000 a.u. (1.4 light years) and 20,000 a.u., with a period of 30 million years. Also suppose this star is dark or at least very faint, and because of that we haven't noticed it yet.

This would mean that once every 30 million years that hypothetical companion star of the Sun would pass through the Oort cloud (a hypothetical cloud of proto-comets at a great distance from the Sun). During such a passage, the proto-comets in the Oort cloud would be stirred around. Some tens of thousands of years later, here on Earth we would notice a dramatic increase in the the number of comets passing the inner solar system. If the number of comets increases dramatically, so does the risk of the Earth colliding with the nucleus of one of those comets.

When examining the Earth's geological record, it appears that about once every 30 million years a mass extinction of life on Earth has occurred. The most well-known of those mass extinctions is of course the dinosaur extinction some 65 million years ago. About 25 million years from now it's time for the next mass extinction, according to this hypothesis.

This hypothetical "death companion" of the Sun was suggested in 1985 by Daniel P. Whitmire and John J. Matese, Univ of Southern Louisiana. It has even received a name: Nemesis.

The article says that this doesn't seem at all probable, but that:
even if the theory is speculative, it's serious and respectable, because its main idea is testable: you find the star and examine its properties.

56508.  Thu Mar 02, 2006 7:03 am Reply with quote

So, perhaps:

Q: Imagine this: there is another Sun in the sky, a Demon Sun we cannot see. Long ago the Demon Sun attacked our Sun. Comets fell, and a terrible winter overtook the Earth. Almost all life was destroyed. The Demon Sun has attacked many times before. It will attack again.

What should we call this killer star?

A: It already has a name: Nemesis.

56510.  Thu Mar 02, 2006 7:09 am Reply with quote

Unfortunately, the last remark - about most stars being binary - was possibly overturned a few weeks ago.

I think it still stands that our Galaxy is slightly unusual. Single-star systems are more likely in low-mass systems, but big-bright stars like ours are usually multiple.

Also, Gray will possibly back me up* that this:

more like a sun that never quite made it.

Is a bit daft. Isn't the current theory that the sun and all its planets came from the same big dust cloud? In that respect, we're all like a sun that never quite made it.

* or more likely prove me wrong

56511.  Thu Mar 02, 2006 7:15 am Reply with quote

Isaac Asimov's novel Nemesis concerns this hypothetical star.

It used to be referred to as the Death Star, after the Star Wars device.

In Greek mythology, Nemesis is the personification of divine retribution. She had an aspect called Invidia, who was the personification of a particular kind of irritation: indignation at someone's unmerited advantage.

Last edited by Flash on Thu Mar 02, 2006 7:16 am; edited 1 time in total

Frederick The Monk
56513.  Thu Mar 02, 2006 7:16 am Reply with quote

MatC wrote:
Discoveries and inventions (though probably not serendipity) links with the discussion of vending machines at
post 54488

The vending machine was invented by the Alexandrian engineer Hero in the first century AD.

“Sacrificial Vessel which flows only when Money is introduced.
If into certain sacrificial vessels a coin of four drachms be thrown, water shall flow out and surround them. Let ABCD (fig. 21) be a sacrificial vessel or treasure chest, having an opening in its mouth…..”

Hero of Alexandria – Treatise on Pneumatics, Machine 21

He also invented something that might lead us into Drinks. Hero had the same problem we have today - you go to a party with a really nice bottle of wine, put it down and go to say hello. When you get back some bastard has drunk your good stuff and there's only Lambrini left.

Hero's solution - a sort of samovar with separate compartments for each wine. When you pour your wine into one compartment you get a token which, when placed on the vending tray, dispenses only your wine. It operates by a simple lever principle - each token is a different weight, setting the opening valve to a different position.


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