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Nobel-prize winning accidents

Science sometimes works in mysterious ways. Many scientific discoveries are the long-awaited culmination of years of gruelling research (Higgs boson anyone?) but every now and then, a touch of luck can seemingly drop a Nobel-prize-worthy discovery into a scientist’s lap.

The truth of course is that it takes a scientist at the top of their game to recognise such a fortuitous discovery, followed by plenty of late nights at the lab to reveal the theoretical principles behind it.

At times, so called discoveries can turn out to be just a glitch in the experiment. Take the recent case of the Opera group at the Gran Sasso underground laboratory in Italy. These physicists shocked the world in September 2011 when  they published research which seemed to show neutrinos travelling faster than light. Further tests have however suggested that it was probably just a problem with the experimental equipment.

We take a look at a three of the most famous lucky breaks in physics.

Pulsars and Little Green Men

Back in 1967, PhD student Jocelyn Bell was testing out a new technique for finding quasars - ‘quasi stellar’ objects in our universe which emit a typical pattern of radio waves. Bell did find quasars but she also got more than she’d bargained for.

Bell hunted quasars using a radio telescope which scanned the entire sky, producing a 30 metre long chart each day. Her main task was to pore over these charts and look out for the characteristic twinkle of a quasar.

Two months in, she noticed an unusual signal that resembled nothing that either she or her supervisor, Anthony Hewish, had seen before. Pulses of radio waves were being emitted from a fixed point in the sky, at eerily regular 1.3 second intervals. The idea even crossed their minds that this could be attempts at communication from a distant alien civilisation.

Further observation revealed three more similar pulsing sources, or pulsars. These turned out to be spinning neutron stars, the remains of supernova explosions.

Controversially, Hewish was awarded a share of the 1974 Nobel prize for their work, but Bell was not credited.

Cosmic background radiation

A 13.7 billion year old signal dating back to the Universe’s creation was initially dismissed as interference caused by pigeon poo when it was first detected in 1965.

Radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were working on a supersensitive giant antenna for detecting faint microwave signals.  But despite their best efforts they couldn’t get rid of a persistent background noise.

After first blaming pigeon droppings on their antenna, and much scrubbing of the equipment, they eventually worked out that the low level signal was coming from much further afield – beyond our galaxy. What they had in fact detected was Cosmic Microwave Background (or CMB) radiation, left over heat from the Big Bang.

This discovery provided some of the strongest experimental evidence for the Big Bang model of the Universe. CMB has since played a vital role in cosmology research since it carries vital snippets of information on what happened seconds after the Big Bang, allowing us to look back in time into our Universe’s infancy.

This fortunate accident earned Penzias and Wilson a share of the 1978 Nobel Prize for physics.

Watch this video about the COBE and WMAP satellites

See our top links on the Cosmic Microwave Background


First medical X-ray by Wilhelm Röntgen of his wife Anna Bertha Ludwig's handWilhelm Röntgen was awarded the first ever Nobel prize for physics in 1901 for his discovery of X-rays.

X-rays had been observed before by several scientists but Röntgen was the first to investigate them in depth and to realise how they could be used in medicine.

Röntgen had been studying electron beams in a vacuum tube when he noticed something strange: when the electron beam was switched on, a fluorescent screen one metre away would glow, even though the tube was shielded in opaque cardboard.

Realising that he was witnessing an invisible form of radiation that could travel through cardboard, he conducted further experiments, temporarily naming the phenomenon ‘X-rays’.

Röntgen became so obsessed with understanding these mysterious rays he moved a bed into his laboratory. His sacrifice paid off when he discovered the two key features of X-rays: they turn photographic plates black and they are stopped by thick or dense materials. Armed with this knowledge he exposed his wife’s hand to X-rays and simultaneously produced the first image of the bones inside the human body and revolutionised medicine.

Although Röntgen’s temporary name ‘ X-rays’ stuck in English-speaking countries, both the Dutch (with Röntgenfoto) and the Germans  (with Röntgenstrahlen) recognise Röntgen’s pioneering efforts.  And he’s also been honoured with an element named after him – Roentgenium.

See our top links on X-rays

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